Hitting theaters just in time for the holidays is Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence’s sci-fi epic Passengers, a.k.a. Gravity with romance and sex. On the face of it, the movie has tons of things going for it, including cool costars and hot director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game). There’s also the much buzzed-about original screenplay by Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange), about two space travelers awakened 90 years too early from suspended animation while on a malfunctioning intergalactic luxury vehicle with 5,000 other passengers they must save from destruction.
Sounds promising, right? But when it comes to big-screen science fiction, Hollywood has learned the hard way that original can be a troublesome thing among today’s jaded movie audiences hungry for pre-sold brand name product. Exceptions like The Martian are few and far between. Yet, along comes Passengers, another big studio fantasy epic that isn’t entangled in the tentacles of the mighty DC or Marvel Comic universes. Or based on a graphic novel. Or a videogame. Or anything that sounds remotely franchise-y, for that matter. And unlike other original futuristic hits like Inception and Interstellar, Passengers can’t ride the coattails of a writer-director like Christopher Nolan, who packs huge cachet with critics and fanboys.
Besides, who knows whether or not the super-likable Lawrence and Pratt can deliver huge ticket sales on their names alone? Sure, Lawrence starred in megahit franchises like The Hunger Games and X-Men but she’s also stubbed her toe as the main attraction in the disappointing Joy and in Serena, in which she and Bradley Cooper went straight to video. And although Pratt scored with viewers in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, no one’s sure that he can he shine outside of the action-only arena. So could the $120-million Passengers turn out to be another acclaimed but underseen favorite like, say, Ex Machina, Looper, Children of Men or Snowpiercer, let alone a major tanker along the lines of Matt Damon’s Elysium or The Adjustment Bureau?
Says a studio production source familiar with the project from the time, a few years back, when Keanu Reeves was widely reported as its star alongside Rachel McAdams, “The cast is great and so is the script, but Passengers is a Christmas release going up against the way better-known Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Assassin’s Creed. Plus, it’s as much a romance as a sci-fi movie. Young male genre fans don’t usually like having their emotions touched–at least not by love affairs. And how would they merchandise it for toys, games, T-shirts, and action figures? It’s an expensive gamble.”
With those odds, it’s understandable that we get the likes of Star Trek Beyond, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Planet of the Apes 3 and Star Wars 8 more often than, say, writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s original Colossal, with Anne Hathaway playing a troubled woman whose emotions somehow unleash a Godzilla-ish creature, or Story of Your Life, director Denis Villeneuve’s movie in which Amy Adams goes up against a worldwide alien invasion.
You know the old Hollywood credo, “Give ‘em more of the same, only slightly different”? When it comes to catering to the perceived wants of fantasy and science fiction fans, the phrase gets amended with, “But if you want to keep your shirt, don’t do 'slightly different’ very often.”