Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
MPAA Rating: (for sexuality, nudity and action/peril)
Running Time: 1:56
Release Date: 12/21/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 20, 2016
Ostensibly, Passengers is about two characters. They are stranded on a starship heading toward a distant planet where a colony is being formed. They were supposed to awaken from a 120-year hibernation four months before arriving on said planet. Instead, one of them wakes up 90 years before arriving because of a technical malfunction. He is the only one of the more than 5,000 people aboard the ship who is conscious and going through his metabolic functions. In other words, he is going to die before the vessel arrives at the planet, and he is fully aware of this fate.
This is, well, fine—not for him, of course, but in terms of narrative. The early-awoken passenger is Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). He's a mechanical engineer, so in theory, if anyone is going to figure out how to make the hibernation chamber work again, it would be him. He can't. He spends about a year trying to fix it, and nothing works.
Jon Spaihts' screenplay begins with a Kafkaesque and surprisingly amusing setup. Jim is not only stuck on this ship but also stuck with a ship that doesn't believe his situation is possible. His friendly android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) puts it a bit more succinctly: The hibernation pods are incapable of failure, so therefore, the only logical conclusion is that it is not possible for Jim to be awake. Since he is, though, the bartender keeps serving Jim drinks.
The ship's computer systems seem to be of a similar opinion, making any attempt to figure out why he is awake and how can go back into hibernation impossible. He contacts the company's customer service department, but since he is 30 years from Earth, traveling at half the speed of light, he won't get a response for over five decades ("Sorry for the delay," indeed).
Jim is alone. A year full of hollow activities passes. He is distraught, and after going for a walk in space, he almost takes another one without a protective spacesuit. Literally running from his suicidal thoughts, he slips, falls, and finds himself next to a hibernation pod containing Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer from New York City.
This is when it becomes, well, awkward—not for him, of course, but definitely for us and, eventually, Aurora. Jim begins researching Aurora. He peruses her file, watches an interview she did explaining why she was traveling to the colony, and reads her writing. He is convinced that he is in love with her, and after a few months of anguished indecision, he decides to short-circuit her hibernation pod so that she will wake up and he will be with her. Jim lies to her, telling her that her awakening was a random malfunction, too.
At this point, there are two ways the story could go. It's all a matter of perspective: Either Spaihts shifts to Aurora, who finds herself undergoing the same devastating realization as Jim, or the screenwriter stays with Jim, who is the direct cause of destroying Aurora's life in the same way a technical mishap destroyed his. The first approach would show some empathetic range and, of course, raise the tension of this situation, since Jim is the villain from her perspective—a deranged stalker who ruins Aurora's life because he wants to be the only person in the known world to have access to her.
Instead, the movie sticks to Jim, creating an impossible-to-reconcile tension between the movie's purpose and the audience's horror that a bona fide bad guy is framed as the story's romantic lead. Yes, Spaihts and director Morten Tyldum turn Jim's essentially murderous act (Another character even agrees with this assessment, only to dismiss it with the shaky metaphor of a drowning man pulling an innocent person under with him) into fodder for a discomforting romance.
See, Jim is the real victim in the movie's eyes, because he is torn about waking up Aurora and, after he does, is really torn up about doing it (There's even sappy, manipulative music whenever Jim's guilt or, later, dismay that his plan has gone wrong hits him). Jim woos her, beds her, and nearly proposes marriage to her under false pretenses, but hey, he's played by Pratt. He's a charming guy, right? No one is that charming.
The story of Passengers proceeds with fairly predictable beats, until a series of strange events on the ship portend the vessel's catastrophic failure. Spaihts sees this as an opportunity for the characters' true feelings to emerge. For anyone who is unconvinced and/or perplexed and/or disturbed by the "hero's" actions, though, it's just a big, silly distraction from and an overwrought, dishonest justification for the queasy foundation of the movie's romantic aims.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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