Please note: This review looks at the full story arc of Passengers and is this littered
with major spoiilers, including comment on the ending. Warnings about when the spoilers are about to kick off and when they cease have been included.
Passengers is a film that, as a science fiction fan, I have had an interest in since seeing the trailer. But therein lies an irritating question that befalls many of today's big pictures – did the trailer essentially give us the whole film experience? Too often we see a condensed cut of the film in it's highlights, providing a disappointing viewing of the thing in it's entirety. One recent sci-fi film that fantastically negated this was Arrival. On seeing the trailer I thought it looked like some possibly insipid rehash of Independence Day, only to be astonished by pretty much everything about the film's approach in theme and content. But, sadly, Passengers is not Arrival (I'm fighting the urge to make some pun on Passengers' Arrival).
It will spoil nothing for those of you who have seen the trailer to know this is a film that takes place on a generation ship heading for a new world to be colonised. All its inhabitants are in the old cryogenic deep freeze, but a couple of them get thawed too early, and seem to like each other. Then something goes wrong with the ship and it all gets rather dramatic, with Michael Sheen appearing as a malfunctioning robot and a tiny glimpse of Larry (Morpheus) Fishburne looking official. This does pretty much sketch out the entire plot, but what we are looking for really is how does it all happen? My answer would be, for the most part, convincingly, but with little in the way of surprises.
One of the things I was not expecting was that we'd get a whole year's worth of just Chris Pratt (in his time frame, not ours, thankfully), as he is the sole person to be erroneously re-awakened due to the ship – named the Avalon – running into a particularly troublesome asteroid belt. After realising his predicament, Jim Preston, engineer (not T Kirk, captain, that's the other stupidly handsome Chris P), he has a good crack at every way he, as an engineer, can conceive of rectifying the situation. It is when he sends a message to Earth and is informed that it will be 50 years until he is likely to receive a reply that we get one of several sparks of dark humour that keep the film alive. When exploring the ship, he enters a swish bar where Michael Sheen, as the android tender called Arthur, becomes Pine's sole friend and confidante.
Passengers invites so much comparison with films of many genres that it is hard for me not to see it as a string of amalgams and impressions. We begin in space, in a ship with the clean, crisp, mechanical norms of the science-fiction genre. The sleeping pods in a eerily silent tomb-like compartment are a battery farm Alien. There is a familiar quality to the manner in which Pratt is awakened, and the uncanny corporate, yet jolly and too-friendly form of address by a holographic program evokes undertones of Jurassic Park to Robocop to Battle Royale, although tonally this is more Spielberg keeping it safe for all the family than the brutal comicbook satire of Paul Verhoeven, and even further away from Battle Royale's unhinged terror. Eliciting the maestro of arguably the best science fiction movie ever – yet not that film here – Pratt walks bewildered into a spookily empty bar, just like Jack Torrance in The Shining, and is greeted by something not altogether human in the form of Arthur.
At this point in the story we have the trope of the lone man, one used as much as in sci-fi as any other genre. But where Ridley Scott's astute knowledge of this arena allowed him to rather successfully create an updated riff on Silent Running with The Martian, when Passengers embarks on the next phase of Jim's re-awakening, triggered by the android (who pulls the right strings to set off all those A.I. warning bells), he takes advantage of all the things the luxury ship has to offer and it becomes something more like an adult Home Alone in space staring The Dude from The Big Lebowski.
It's not all fun and games though. The limitations of what Preston, as a lowly engineer, can gain access to in terms of the ship's resources not only works as a nice comment on class, but feeds into the thread running through the film regarding the paradoxical limitations technology has imposed, despite its far-reaching progress. This is played for laughs early on but later gains more weight when Pratt's obsession with a sleeping passenger causes him to believe that the universe is allowing him to be so close to his perfect match. And it is that damned android who pushes him farther into immoral territory when he discovers there is a way of waking her up. This is where director Morten Tyldum again allows sci-fi to do its job and makes you think philosophically and empathise with the man's dilemma. So after his Cast Away in space meets I Am Legend in space, where a full beard is grown and much alcohol is consumed, our Unlucky Jim decides to stop his impression of The Dude and smarten up, for now he has made the dubious decision to waken his sleeping beauty.
Once Jennifer Lawrence's Aurora is woken, Jim makes out it was another fault of the ship. The film then descends into romantic drama territory, as after reacting similarly to Pratt about the nature of their predicament, Aurora begins to fall for the handsome engineer. It is all very cheesy and likely to prove offensive to anyone with a concept of romance that goes beyond Hollywood cliché. Brief Encounter in space it is not. Now we are primed to await the tragic moment when our heroine discovers our hero's dark secret, and it is once again the android Arthur who facilitates this discovery, although it is interesting to observe that in both instances of Arthur's non-human interceding, the flaws of human nature create the possibility for misinterpretation in his assumptions. So in this case of the benevolent android is only dangerous as a mirror to our human immoralities. Understandably, Aurora is horrified by the revelation and distances herself from Jim (as much as she can with his intrusive commandeering of the ship's Tannoy system). All is not well on board the Avalon.
Cue a third person to be unfrozen, a crew member with bridge clearance, played by Laurence Fishburne. He brings a welcome injection of gravitas, not to mention diversity. But even though Fishburne (as Gus Mancuso) exudes a certain presence, the script gives him some ridiculous lines, playing on racial stereotype to the point where he once sounds like Mr T's better educated and less excitable brother. This is lazy writing on the part of script man Jon Spaihts, which is more saddening to see now in the context of the current backsliding of US politics. Anyway, Gus doesn't stick around for long, so the focus can go back to the two physically perfect young white people the story is really concerned with. The technical meltdown of the whole ship that started when it struck the asteroid belt provides the film's dramatic climax and the ultimate resolution of the two passengers, which is to say they live happily ever after, despite the unavoidable truth that a couple with only each other to spend time with for the rest of their lives would probably make short work of fuzzy Hollywood romance, and even the charms of Arthur would not save one of them ejecting themselves out of the airlock. I imagine a War of the Roses in space sequel would be rather satisfying.
**END OF SPOILERS**
I found this film frustrating, as it wastes a good premise with predictable storytelling and the unengaging romance at its centre. I never found myself invested with these characters, despite all concerned turning in pretty decent performances, and I'm attributing that to Spaiht's writing, which is a shame as he did a pretty decent job of Prometheus. It would seem he is more at home writing the sci-fi concepts and set-pieces than dealing with basic human interaction. There are sparks of wit and intelligence though, and there is a steady hand at the helm of the Avalon in Tyldum as director, but you get the feeling of a journeyman turn, and the business-like application adds to the script often missing the mark and landing on the wrong side of cheesy. Personally, I would suggest that if you want a slice of sci-fi with your turkey leftovers this holiday period that isn't Star Wars, try and seek out the tail end of the Arrival screenings and maybe leave Passengers until the new year.