It’s telling that the marketing for the new film Passengers has focused on close ups of its leading stars’ shining faces. Without the undeniable presence of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt the film is just a nameless disaster with some great prospects but little idea how to fulfill its own potential. The plot, direction, and dialogue are all terribly cut-rate for a project of this magnitude; it’s a big, dumb, sexy mess.
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The most interesting aspects of Passengers pertain to a certain plot point that could be described as “spoiler” material. As such, it’s difficult to praise its admittedly bold moral quandaries with much literal wording. The story, from a high-level perspective, is about two passengers aboard a spaceship on course for a new habitable planet who wake up from their induced hibernation 90 years too early. Old age will get them before they reach their intergalactic new home.
Handyman Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) are the pair of souls unfortunate enough to find themselves on a slow boat to “Homestead II.” Per genre romantic genre stipulation, the duo doesn’t immediately click. Time and perhaps some desperation eventually entwine these lovers and together they have to contend with a malfunctioning vessel carrying over 5,000 unconscious and unaware individuals and also some big secrets.
The filmmakers cruelly tease us with suggestions of the plot’s potential direction only to take the path most traveled by and, in doing so, contradict Aurora’s whole arc. The mishandling of Aurora’s character is perhaps the film’s biggest offense, as Lawrence is more than ably capable of swinging for the fences. Ditto goes for her male counterpart who also could tackle so much more challenging material to great success. But it’s Aurora’s reduction to a clichéd love-struck damsel that stinks the worst.
If there are an infinite number of parallel universes then there are infinite versions of Passengers, each following the basic details of the plot while diverging wildly in tone and story execution. A David Fincher-esque suspense-thriller Passengers starring Lawrence and Pratt could use almost the exact same script but with some touchups that zig instead of zag (not to mention the dreadful dialogue that could use a sizeable injection of wit).
Alt-universe Fincher’s Passengers would be an R-rated box office hit. One could even envision a straight-up horror iteration of Passengers that also fares moderately better than the boring-ass version we get here on lame old regular Earth.
This strange science-fiction-adventure-romance-drama hybrid will undoubtedly have mass appeal – such is the benefit of hinging your whole operation on the most widely loved actor and actress on the planet. And its production design and costumes are of top-shelf quality, so there’s plenty of visual delights to feast your eyes on. However, the visual effects look surprisingly weak considering the movie’s reported $110 million budget.
Director Morten Tyldum received an Oscar nomination for The Imitation Game, a film that carried far more subtlety and depth than can be found here. As good as J-Law and Pratt are there’s only so much they can do with garbage dialogue and dispassionate direction. Major problems with the story aside, there are moments when the performances are shockingly bad or desperately out of place. One can sense the director letting the performances slip due to the overwhelming technical demands of the production.
Comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine, and Solaris will run wild, and Passengers most obviously owes some debt to a few of those titles. But Passengers itself is little more than a reheated soap opera set in space. It’s excruciatingly frustrating to see so many dark, thematically rich, interesting ideas floated in front of us then shot down with extreme prejudice. Passengers acts like a tough genre spectacle for adults but doesn’t have the balls to pull the trigger.
If you can tolerate your share of middling pap then Passengers won’t exactly be much of an endurance test. Those who are more demanding of their A-list stars or their own wasted two hours might want to slip this one a bit further down on their “to-see” list this holiday season. In a sea of quality contenders Passengers and its inherent mediocrity just isn’t quite a must-see. The film it could have been, however, is a more interesting story to play out in your imagination.
Two out of five!
“Passengers” is rated PG-13 and opens in theatres everywhere December 21.