Sometimes a movie comes along freighted with impossibly high expectations. Based on Jon Spaithts’ almost decade-old screenplay, a kind of Titanic on a rocket ship, and directed by the Oscar-friendly Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), Passengers finally hits theaters as a sleek, high-ticket science-fiction romance starring A-listers Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. It’s not only not very good; it’s often straight up terrible.
The movie is set on the super luxury space ship Avalon, carrying 5,000 passengers in suspended animation pods through year 30 with 90 more to go before they’re scheduled to land on a verdant colonized planet, Homestead II. A meteorite storm pummels the ship, things go haywire in the engine room and Jim Preston, a mechanic looking to start his life over (Pratt), wakes up way too soon. Stalking the ship all alone, interacting with the relentlessly cheery virtual reality staff, sampling the vending machine-dispensed cuisine, playing video games, hitting the basketball court and chatting with elegant android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen, one of the better things in the movie) who’s straight out of The Shining… all that only goes so far for Jim. He slowly, and we mean slowly, goes wild-eyed, full-bearded disheveled and suicidally nuts—late Howard Hughes/Jim Morrison/Elvis-level nuts—only, as played by Pratt, with lots of humor and a charming twinkle in his eye.
Then the galaxy’s loneliest guy literally falls in front of the pod of a sleeping beauty named, of course, Aurora (get it?) and becomes fascinated by her, watching her prerecorded interviews about who she is and why she was willing to leave her friends and family to venture into the unknown. Jennifer Lawrence plays the role of a writer, the daughter of a Pulitzer-winner, so, yeah, we empathize with Pratt’s fixation. Soon, thanks to a very hinky plot development, the Avalon sports two awakened, doomed passengers. Jim and Aurora feel each other out, argue, plan their survival strategies and fall in love as they go on dates and take romantic walks in space.
When it comes to plot, potent themes, ethics, scares, action and even basic common sense, Passengers feels flimsy. Put it up next to Arrival, Gravity or The Martian—let alone a really good episode of Black Mirror—and it’s a major fail. Playing underwritten roles, the charming Pratt and Lawrence have been much better elsewhere, and Tyldum stages some of their talky scenes as if they’re in a school play. Pratt has trouble shifting into serious mode as the movie requires him to, and Lawrence generally looks disengaged and unfocused. Not that we entirely blame her, when the role so often requires her to somehow forgive Jim’s stalkerish qualities and to spend much of her screen time like a damsel in distress, mincing around helplessly and yelling Jim! as the two lovebirds try to avoid going down with the ship. Their tricky intergalactic romance should sizzle, raise moral issues and even reduce us to an emotional puddle. But it’s a failed experiment in screen chemistry, no matter how valiantly Thomas Newman’s musical score tries to get us to care about them.
Laurence Fishburne turns up briefly late in the show as another awaken-too-soon character, a ship’s captain, but even he seems disassociated and extraneous. By the last third of the movie, involving lots of badly staged running, crying and acts of heroism meant to redeem some pretty skeevy behavior, we’ve already slipped into our own sleepy pods of suspended animation.
Passengers could have been big, shiny, quirky and heart tugging—a cool holiday popcorn flick. Instead it’s empty, anonymous and calculated.