IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 116 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The spaceship Avalon is transporting over 5000 colonists to the planet Homestead II, a journey that takes 120 years. The colonists are in hibernation pods, but a malfunction awakens a passenger, mechanical engineer Jim Preston, 90 years early. After a year of isolation with only Arthur, a robot bartender, for company, Jim notices beautiful writer Aurora Lane in one of the pods and, after struggling with the morality of awakening her for companionship, manually revives her, telling her when she wakes up that she did so because of a pod malfunction….
A few months ago, if someone told me that a movie with a script by the co-writer of The Darkest Hour and Prometheus was good I’d have been very surprised. Since then we’ve had Dr. Strange which Jon Spaihts also co-wrote, so I revised my opinion a bit and actually begun to look forward to Passengers despite still being unable to understand why the dull-as-dishwater Chris Pratt is a star. The film is actually a little odd, an intelligent, thought provoking piece of science fiction presenting moral dilemmas and important messages about humanity and life that throughout does battle with an often dumb, silly love story/disaster movie that rarely rings true. It seems that, for some reason, the script which was actually written way back in 2007 [and almost filmed with Johnny Depp and Emily Blunt] has been altered, with the final act drastically reduced, so it may be studio meddling that is responsible for many of the film’s weaknesses. It certainly isn’t all bad though; there some terrific scenes and nice touches, at times the story does have the emotional effect it’s striving for, and the special effects are almost flawless. It’s just all so terribly uneven. There were so many times I was really getting involved in the drama and then something would come along to take me out of it.
It’s all a bit like the various versions of I Am Legend at first, as a meteor shower causes a malfunction on the Avalon which opens the pod containing Jim Preston, the poor guy being doomed to spend the entire rest of his life alone. He’s even limited as to where he can go and what he can eat because he’s not a “first class” passenger. Actually, he’s not entirely alone; holograms, who think he’s one of many, talk to him all over the ship, little robot things clear up any mess he drops, and there’s a robot bartender Arthur who even dispenses bartender-like advice. Michael Sheen is absolutely note perfect in this part, which is just as well because Pratt plays the first third with his jaw on the floor nearly all of the time, even if there’s nothing happening – honestly, it’s his only expression. Arthur’s scenes, some of which have a distinct whiff of The Shining in them, are some of the best in the film. Arthur tells Jim not to pine for what could have been but to get the most out of his “now”, and so Jim takes full advantage of the Avalon’s amenities and hones his dance, basketball and spacewalk skills, but a year alone eventually takes its toll, and he’s a suicidal, drunken wreck by the time he gazes into the pod containing Aurora. He looks at her ‘video passenger profile’ and it reveals her funny personality and that she is a writer. I think that Jim is supposed to fall deeply in love even this early, but it’s hard to tell with Pratt’s weak acting.
Now there’s been considerable fuss made by some that the film’s supposed hero wakes up this sleeping beauty for selfish reasons, tells her that it was due to a malfunction, and thereby sentences her to die before her journey is completed. Some reviews have apparently even called the film sexist and offensive, which to me just reflects how narrow minded and PC-obsessed many have become [I’m sure that if the sexes were reversed then there would be less whinging]. So now critics give negative reviews because a character does something the critic didn’t agree with? Is this what we now have to look forward now from them? God help us! It’s not as if Jim’s not seen to struggle with what he should do before-hand anyway, and it’s not as if the film is firmly on his side. It just ask us what we do in a similar situation, and as the story progresses his action proves to have both positive and negative consequences. It does mean that it’s odd watching Jim and Aurora fall in love though. The fact that’s a relationship built on a lie means that it’s hard to really ‘feel’ the romance, but on the other hand it provides a dark edge and a bit of suspense as we know that Aurora’s going to find out the truth eventually, a scene acted as convincingly by Jennifer Lawrence as probably possible. Otherwise though I’m not sure that she has a total handle on her character in this film [though I’m not sure any actress could have made Aurora’s decisions near the end believable] and the two together have about as much chemistry as a pair of corpses.
Still, the film proceeds at a decent pace despite featuring just two [or rather three] characters [though a fourth does wake up for a while and provides an awesomely dumb moment when this character, an engineer, tells these two civilians to fix a spaceship rather than wake up another engineer] and not a lot happening at times. Unfortunately, after a while it’s obvious that Spaihts has written himself into a corner and can’t do much more than turn it all into Titanic-type stuff. There are a few exciting moments, but much of it rings a bit false. And then the film does the irritating thing so many films do [Nerve is another notable example from this year] of seeming to get near to a suitably bleak ending but then suddenly turning happy out of the blue, though this may have worked better if the original ending as written and possibly filmed hadn’t been cut down and simplified so much. I’m not going to describe it here, but from what I’ve read, it sounds like it would have added an extra 15 minutes and given us a final scene which would have been quite beautiful and given more context and emotion to the events which conclude the film in the version that was have here….as well as giving a larger role to a certain well known actor whose entire part in the finished film is the one shot we’ve all seen of him in the trailer!
There are a few glaring holes here and there, the one that stuck out to be being when the ship announces to our couple that it’s passing close by a star very closely. Not only would the ship not survive for a second, but why on earth was it programmed to announce this if no humans were supposed to be awake for another 90 years? The little humorous touches generally come off though and even work as satire on the airline and similar industries, such as when Jim goes to get a coffee and the machine has all these different coffees but only lets him have the most basic one. Later, we see that Aurora, as a “gold star” passenger, is entitled to a sumptuous breakfast, while Jim has to settle for cold cereal. Director Morten Tyldum, in his second English language film after The Imitation Game, does handle the thrill moments very well, notably when the gravity aboard the ship suddenly fails and Aurora is in a swimming pool when the water suddenly rises and she risks drowning inside an aquatic bubble. While the design of much of the ship isn’t too interesting besides a few details, the effects really are superb; I’m often critical of computer generated stuff because to my antiquated eyes it often looks more unconvincing than practical effects, but the visuals in this film are up there with Gravity, though Tyldrum seems to be going more for a Solaris-type feel, at least until the final third. I saw this move in 3D, which as you probably know is not something that I like doing but I’d got the cinema times wrong! The scenes in space do have some depth and Tyldum has a favourite shot of a backwards track along part of the circular exterior of the Avalon which works well in the format.
Better than you may fear but not as good as you may hope for, Passengers is in the end a rather frustrating experience, most of its problems stemming from sloppy writing which weakens a premise full of potential, though it’s also saddled with a leading man whose limitations as an actor are rendered painfully obvious when he has to carry the film either on his own or with just one other person, and has clearly been meddled with to its detriment. Saying all this, it’s not really an unpleasant watch, is actually quite relaxing at times with Thomas Newman’s score often easy on the ears, and may still sometimes make you think….which can’t be a bad thing.