Sleeping Beauties: "Passengers" an unusually bold space opera until action takes over
116 min., rated PG-13.
*Spoiler Alert* This review contains a crucial plot reveal that is nearly impossible to dance around. Read further at your own risk.
Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are a couple of the most attractive and charismatic movie stars on the planet, so seeing them headline a love story in space would seem to suit them well. While the marketing campaign has inaccurately led audiences to believe they are getting a certain kind of film, "Passengers" is actually an unusual space opera about a romantic relationship and an ethical conundrum with a little high-stakes adventure tossed in. Director Morten Tyldum (2014’s “The Imitation Game”) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (2016’s “Doctor Strange”) unveil a “what would you do?” reveal pretty early on and address the moral implications of a decision that could endanger a complete stranger. At the risk of failing, “Passengers” travels down bolder, morally complex avenues, and when it is doing that, the proceedings resist blowing up in the faces of its stars. It’s not until the third act that the film goes off track and finally turns to mush, but ultimately, one is probably going to be of two minds about it.
The Starship Avalon is a spacecraft in transit from Earth to a distant colony called Homestead II — “the jewel of the unoccupied worlds” that offers a better way of life and makes Earth look overpopulated, overpriced and overrated. Including a crew of 258 and 5,000 passengers who have chosen to give up their lives on their home planet, everyone is assigned to hibernate for the 120-year-long voyage, until mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up from his hibernation pod — 90 years too soon. After wandering around the ship, he realizes he is the only one awake and can’t get any answers. The pods were said to be fail-safe, but Jim can’t even program his pod to put him back into cryogenic slumber. Alone for a year and three weeks, Jim has tried every option but made the best of the activities The Starship Avalon has to offer. Losing his mind a little and reaching the end of his rope, he then stumbles upon one of the pods containing Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), whom Jim learns was a New York writer looking for adventure. Does he discharge this stranger from hibernation and put her at risk with him, or does he grow old and die alone? You do the math.
From the start, “Passengers” lays out the logistical details of the spaceship very efficiently and sets up a desirable atmosphere. It’s absorbing and methodically mounted in ways similar to 2007’s “I Am Legend” and 2013’s “Oblivion” when Will Smith and Tom Cruise, respectively, had to be resourceful as The Last Men on Earth and went about their daily routines under extraordinary circumstances. The predicament that Jim wrestles with is involving, and it would have been a strong enough basis for the remainder of the film had there been more trust in that vision. Jim is full of guilt for his selfish act, but at the same time, who could stand living a solitary life with the knowledge that you would die before reaching your last chance at a better life? That's the only real validation for Jim’s actions, as the script does later let him off the hook too easily. If the character were played by anyone other than Chris Pratt, the pivotal decision that Jim makes in waking up Aurora could have felt even more queasy and despicable. It could have hovered over the film as a problematic turn-off, and yet, it raises interesting questions. Jim keeps the lie a secret from Aurora, but when the heartbreaking truth does come out—and, of course, it has to at some point—he immediately confesses and the betrayal she feels is palpable. Then, as soon as the ship begins to slowly malfunction, so does the film.
Without question, Chris Pratt receives the trickier role. The casting of Pratt certainly works in the film’s favor, mostly getting one to understand and buy into his relationship with Aurora. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Jim happens to look like Chris Pratt but also radiates an innate likability. As Aurora (a name that might be a bit on-the-nose for a sleeping beauty, don’t cha’ think?), Jennifer Lawrence is equally effective and as appealing as the real Jennifer Lawrence seems to be in the public eye. For a woman stripped of her will to live by a man who fills her heart, Aurora still retains her female agency and earns a satisfying moment when she gives it to Jim real good. The two stars have chemistry and get to stir up some passion, even if the script often works against them. Their interplay with a third passenger is also amusing, Michael Sheen adding gentleman wit with a touch of creepiness as glass-polishing android bartender Arthur, who almost recalls Lloyd the Bartender in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”
Like a switch that might have been a result of studio groupthink or test screenings, the climax of “Passengers” sets the tension between Jim and Aurora on the proverbial shelf to force in some explosive action. Instead of confronting the elephant in the room for too long, the film would rather blow stuff up and give audiences the Hollywood ending. Aided by Rodrigo Prieto’s sleek cinematography and Guy Hendrix Dyas’ production design, it also looks good and gives the viewer enough sights to drink in (when the gravity goes out of the ship while Aurora goes for a swim, it's one of the more thrilling set-pieces). Thomas Newman’s score is fine, too, although the music swells so much that potentially moving or even understated moments become saccharine. As long as one is willing to forgive it for not sticking to its guns, "Passengers" is slick and reasonably compelling with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence a cosmic match, even when the film surrounding them ends up being less ambitious and provocative than how it started.
Grade: B -