It’s taken nearly 10 years to bring Passengers to the big screen and I’m not quite sure why. The film feels like an easy sell. Get two A-list stars together for a romantic science fiction film, set on a spaceship. It calls to mind a great bit from Thank You For Smoking, where Rob Lowe’s character basically details the exact premise (he even name checks Passengers’ distributor Sony). Well it’s here now and it’s pretty good. Given recent sci-fi fair such as the intelligent film that is Arrival and the popcorn spectacle that is Rogue One, Passengers falls a bit short in its potential, but that says nothing of how engaging the film manages to be. It works thanks to the established personas of the actors involved and some clever ideas involving the production design to make a slick-looking movie.
The film opens on a spaceship that’s on a voyage to Homstead II, a distant planet some 5,000 people are going to colonize. This being a future where the perception of perfection overlooks the real probability of error, one of the hibernation chambers malfunctions, leading to the early awakening of Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). Realizing he still has 90 years to go, Jim is rightly panicked about his situation, once realizing there is seemingly no way to go back to sleep. With only the comforts of an android bartender played by Michael Sheen, all hope seems to be lost until the arrival of another awakened passenger, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).
There is a level of mystery to the film that can be tricky to get into, depending on how much one wants to know going in. The key angle is noting the romance that forms between Jim and Aurora. While Pratt commands a good portion of the film’s first third, it becomes a two-hander. As this wouldn’t be a film without conflict, later portions do deal with what is going on with this spaceship and the more adventurous turns do sadly just mean having the guy do all the heavy-lifting. Passengers attempts to make some fair trades, but this is mainly the Pratt show, which is not a bad thing, but still feels a bit dated.
That in mind, the nature of the special effects-oriented conflict comes as a cost to the potentially better film that is here. Given what is established, there are some ethical questions to consider about this film, which writer Jon Spaihts merely touches on with his screenplay. Whether or not certain elements of the script have changed over the years before landing in the hands of director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game, Headhunters), the result is a film that chooses to go against a more intriguing story. Attacking certain ideas and themes head on may not have brought Passengers up to the level of other recent space-based flicks like Moon, but placing emphasis on the fallout of certain actions could have made for something interesting and different.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Passengers isn’t different in its own way. The film is an original at a time when big-budgeted films don’t tend to be all that original. With $120 million to work with, Tyldum certainly did his best to put all the money on screen. Wonderfully shot by Rodrigo Prieto, for a film that does a lot to mix soundstages and CG backgrounds, the design of this spaceship was a great thing to behold. Regardless of what makes scientific sense (because I’m sure the logic police are piling up at the gates to demolish this latest science Fiction film), the concept behind how this ship works was neat to explore. It tows the line between a futuristic luxury hotel you want to stay and what could feel like the Overlook from The Shining.
There are also the stars to consider. Pratt and Lawrence essentially get to play the versions of themselves that audiences have come to enjoy. This is less about creating completely new people and more about seeing Pratt deliver cool/goofy confidence and Lawrence play up her knowing dry humor. The two work well together, as they have believable chemistry and the required amount of charm to hold audience’s attentions for a two-hour ride through a high concept film. Not hurting at all is the addition of Sheen, the cheery bartender programmed to have the right kind of advice. He works well with the actors and reminds you that this is simple entertainment.
Passengers seems to be in the position of having to prove something and it really shouldn’t have to. It features two big stars playing to the strengths of what they are liked for and plenty of visual spectacle in the form of a space adventure. It’s designed as entertainment to play to those wanting to enjoy a romantic storyline with some blockbuster-y adjustments. I wish it went deeper into what it sets up, but there’s a mostly very entertaining film here, with some conventional developments to bring it home. It ends up feeling kind of standard, but it does allow for some fun in space.