Passengers is a surprisingly good and unique sci-fi that expertly uses two top actors as part of a dramatic, starset romance.
On the spaceship Avalon, thousands of people are travelling across the galaxy to a new home, but engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is woken from cryogenic sleep 90 years too early. Soon joined by journalist Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), the two try to discover why they woke, and how to save themselves and the remainder of the ship as it shuts down.
Not for the first time, film critics have been hard on a movie that works better than they say. Director Morton Tyldum and writer John Spaihts drag the romantic drama into space, and in the process create something different and arguably more interesting than you might expect. The plot was slightly reminiscent of Titanic, of all things, but the ultra-modern sheen and the central conceit made the underlying drama and romance more interesting and appealing. In turn, the creeping drama of the ship’s malfunction is balanced out nicely by the humour and the interplay between the two leads.
The film hinges on a plot development that raised some controversy – I like to think I’m liberally minded, but I think the overreaction is bullshit. Nobody can possibly imagine the psychological trauma of deep space travel, especially in terms of the mind-bending time it will take, and so for me the film’s decisions are rooted in the central tenets of sci-fi and offer an interesting, sometimes tragic study of an unimaginable scenario. Thomas Newman’s sparse but eerie and sweeping score is an intelligent counterpart to the drama, while Tyldum’s direction – following The Imitation Game – shows the director’s ability to shift between genres effortlessly with a continued focus on character.
The set design and special effects are second-to-none, the futuristic spaceship evoking what Apple might cook up given the time and money, and the central throughline – that travel through space is impossibly difficult and time-consuming – appealed on a scientific level. Should we even be able to create cryogenic technology like this, the psychological and emotional toll of travelling for hundreds of years to your destination are chilling to comprehend. Action wasn’t necessarily part of the movie, but when it does happen, it cleverly uses the ideas that are tied into space travel, with no attempts to subvert science where other movies might have.
When it comes to performances, the actors here needed to be good, as they form the two main components, and it’s striking to have a blockbuster with only two. I thought this set the film apart in that everything relied upon them, with the effects and drama an accompaniment to their performances. Chris Pratt shows depth beyond his usual humour, particularly in embodying a man in an impossibly awful situation who soldiers on, particularly impressive as he continues to struggle with his new existence against adversity, and his own demons.
Jennifer Lawrence is much less than her usual bolshy self, but gets to show off her dramatic chops, Aurora both a strong-willed and thoughtful character not initially demeaned by the plot, particularly in her response to revelations halfway through. This doesn’t last until the latter stages though, where her independence is crowbarred into a stereotype to make the story work, which is a shame. The third wheel of the movie is Michael Sheen’s robot bartender Arthur, whose mechanically-minded responses to the two allow them to assess themselves and each other in a different light. The actor is great at embodying the shift between a type of thoughtfulness and a robotic aloofness verging on creepy. A few other famous faces appear at points, but to discuss their performances (which are slight anyway) would be to spoil the plot.
All told, I was impressed that an almost indie movie set-up – just the two characters – worked as well as it did, though audiences seem not to agree, unfortunately. This is a shame, because it’s a great time for sci-fi if a film like this can be made with two of the hottest actors around, and yet bring new sub-genres of storytelling (sweeping romance/comedy/drama) into this prism. Both funny and dramatic, the potentially-problematic story holds up well, and while it won’t win any awards, don’t dismiss it out of hand!