The above image is the most frequently used still to promote Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, and it really is perfectly representative of the film. Here we have an out-of-focus Jennifer Lawrence, beautifully indistinct and gazing at something off-screen, while a heroic Chris Pratt stares at her with tragic intensity. We don’t know what she’s looking at, what she wants, but his motivations are terribly clear. He wants her, at any cost.
By now, you’ve likely heard about Passengers’ “twist,” an event that occurs very early in the film’s running time. It’s really only a twist in that it’s a plot development never revealed in any of the trailers for the movie, but if you don’t want to know, stop reading here. Because there is no way to talk about Passengers without talking about the vile decision at its heart.
Chris Pratt plays Jim Preston, a passenger on a luxury interstellar spacecraft headed for a colony planet. His hibernation pod malfunctions, and he wakes up 90 years earlier than the other 5,000 passengers and 258 crewmembers. Save for a robot bartender played by Michael Sheen, Jim is alone, and he will live and die alone on the Starship Avalon. Unless, that is, he decides to break open the hibernation pod of a neighboring sleeping beauty named Aurora, for chrissakes, scoring himself a mating partner but stealing her life in the process.
I’ll give Jim this: he struggles with the decision. He knows he shouldn’t do it, that he shouldn’t wake Aurora and force her to live out the remaining years of her life in the fancy but claustrophobic Avalon with him. But he falls in love with Jennifer Lawrence’s face and with Aurora’s words. She’s a writer and he feels like he knows her by reading her work.
There could be something here about the ownership fans feel of the content we consume, the way we think the writers, directors and musicians we admire are somehow ours, that we truly know them because we know their work so intimately. There could be something here about the toxic and possessive nature of the male gaze, the generations of social conditioning that have convinced men that every beautiful woman in some way belongs to them. There could be something here about the innately selfish nature of loneliness, the terrible cycle of alienation and isolation that keeps us in solitude when all we want is to be loved.
Any of these would make for a respectable central theme of Passengers. Instead, we get a sappy space romance that essentially condones Jim’s actions. And here’s the thing: the reprehensible conceit of the film is the only thing that makes it worth watching. If we weren’t so appalled, we’d be bored to tears.
There’s little conflict to Passengers. Sure, Aurora gets pretty pissed when she discovers Jim’s lightly murderous secret, but she gets over it. Yes, there’s a problem with Avalon’s central hub, one that could kill Jim, Aurora and every slumbering passenger on the ship, but this danger merely provides Jim with the opportunity to save the day, thereby enabling Aurora to forgive him and fall back in love with him. There’s a bit of intrigue when the Avalon’s captain, played by Laurence Fishburne, suddenly awakens, but his role is so abbreviated and meaningless as to scarcely matter to the whole of the film. It’s thanks only to Andy Garcia’s utterly pointless cameo that Fishburne’s appearance isn’t the most wasted part of a very wasteful film. Why did any of these people agree to this?
No, that isn’t fair. It makes sense that Lawrence and Pratt would be compelled by a story that has frequently been dubbed “Titanic in space.” But even removed from the moral implications of Passengers (I mean, Jack didn’t steal Rose’s life, he saved it), there’s a fundamental lack of chemistry between the two leads, despite all the tanned and toned flesh they flash. Lawrence and Pratt are of course talented and charismatic performers, but there’s something very same about them. They’ve both got an America’s Sweetheart vibe that plays more interesting against an edge, and unfortunately, Jim’s decision to murder the beautiful stranger sleeping next to him isn’t exactly the edge I mean.
It’s a great-looking film, and it takes place on a great-looking ship. The set design is really interesting, and one set piece in particular – Aurora’s swimming in the Avalon’s pool when the gravity on the ship goes haywire – is breathtaking. But this great-looking film starring two of our best-loved actors (hell, five of them, if you count Sheen, Fishburne and Garcia) is hobbled by its very premise. This could be a forgettable but pleasant sci-fi romance, if not for Jim's frankly insane decision that acts as the film's inciting event. Or it could be a darkly compelling psychological examination of male entitlement, if not for the cutesy romance that follows. Passengers can’t make a decision between the two movies it wants to be, so it functions as neither, leaving us with a self-sabotaging and emotionally empty waste of time.