“So why’d you give up your life on Earth?”
Some spoilers follow.
There have been plenty of wrongheaded blockbusters, but it’s still shocking to witness a film, here at the tail-tend of 2016, be this wrongheaded. Morten Tyldum’s Passengers should’ve been a home run; a slam dunk; a total knockout; or some other sports idiom! It’s a big budget sci-fi film that takes two popular, likable stars — Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt — and has them fall in love against a backdrop of special effects wonderment. Instead, Tyldum and writer Jon Spaihts have crafted an unsettling narrative that tries to convince us that stalking is cute. The end result plays out as if all the self-proclaimed “nice guys” of Reddit and 4Chan got together and made a sci-fi film.
In the future, Earth has become almost uninhabitable (why am I not surprised?), resulting in The Starship Avalon blasting off with over 5000 souls on board for a brave new world dubbed “Homestead II”. The passengers of the Avalon are supposed to be in hyper-sleep for 120-years, but due to a malfunction, one of these sleepers wakes up. He’s Jim, a handsome engineer played by Pratt. The problem: there’s no way for Jim to go back to hyper-sleep, and thus he must live out the rest of his life alone on the ship. Well, not exactly alone. He has the company of Arthur (Michael Sheen), a robot bartender modeled after Lloyd in The Shining (for some reason).
Time ticks on and Jim gets tired of living his rule-free/companion-free lifestyle. Just when all seems lost, he happens to catch a glimpse of the sleep-pod containing snoozing journalist Aurora (Lawrence). It’s love/lust at first sight, and in his desperation Jim decides to pull the plug and wake Aurora up. This is, of course, a disturbing premise — and there’s nothing wrong with putting such a premise in your film, if you go about it the right way. In fact, if handled correctly, this very premise could be used to concoct a chilling, thoughtful, existential narrative about obsession and possession, and the inherent belief that males have in their “ownership” of their potential romantic partners.
But Passengers doesn’t care about any of that. It just wants these two crazy kids to fall in love in zero-gravity. So after some internal debate, Jim rouses Aurora and it’s not long before the two are smooching through the cosmos. Jim, of course, doesn’t tell Aurora that he’s the one who woke her up, but after the honeymoon phase ends Aurora learns the truth, and she is — understandably — upset and repulsed.
“Ah-ha!” you’re saying. “Here is the film’s chance to reflect on it’s unsettling premise!” Nope! Again, Passengers doesn’t give a shit about that. It just wants to be Space Titanic, with the lower-class Jim and the upper-class Aurora defying the odds on a doomed voyage and falling in love. So while the script allows Aurora to be suitably disturbed by Jim’s actions, it never allows Jim to realize how at fault he was. Instead, the film seems to subscribe to Jim’s logic that it was “fate” or some such bullshit that Aurora wake up and have some space-sex with him, instead of living to realize her new life on Homestead II.
Pratt and Lawrence may normally be likable performers, and few would deny the award winning Lawrence is a legitimately great actress. But the pair are woefully mismatched here. Along with this year’s otherwise enjoyable Magnificent Seven and last year’s Jurassic World, Passengers continues to prove that Pratt just isn’t very good at playing the type of lovable jerk that Harrison Ford made so popular, and that films keep insisting on casting Pratt as. The reason Pratt’s breakout performance in Guardians of the Galaxy worked so well was that for all of his character’s blustering and cool posturing, deep-down inside he was a doofus. That’s the type of character Pratt excels at, not the roguish leading man. Lawrence, meanwhile, is reduced to little more than a helpless plaything; a female character who constantly has to turn to her male co-star for help. Perhaps if the special effects surrounding these actors had wowed we might be caught-up enough to look past the film’s terrible philosophy. But there’s nothing here you haven’t seen in a million other sci-fi space movies, save for maybe a space swimming pool. But really, a swimming pool in space isn’t a great idea. The only saving grace of Passengers is Sheen’s wry drink-serving robot. If only the film had let Jim and Aurora slumber and focused on him instead.