Passengers Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen. Directed by Morten Tyldum. Rated PG-13. Opening December 21 citywide.
There’s a darkness to the main premise of the sci-fi misfire Passengers that seems to have gotten lost along the way to the finished film. Maybe it was there in the original screenplay by Jon Spaihts, which made the Blacklist, an annual tally of the most promising unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, back in 2007. Maybe director Morten Tyldum, whose last film was the equally underwhelming Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, is responsible for sanding off the story’s edges. Or maybe it was one of the many producers and studio executives who authorized a massive budget and huge paydays for stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, and thus needed to make sure the movie appealed to the widest possible audience.
Whoever is to blame, the result is still a movie that lacks the conviction to follow through with its ethically questionable setup, settling instead for the glossy spectacle of two gorgeous movie stars having artfully shot space sex. Pratt and Lawrence do look great as Jim Preston and Aurora Lane, respectively, two passengers on a voyage through space to colonize a new planet. Everyone on board their ship is meant to remain in suspended animation for the entire 120-year journey, but a malfunction wakes Jim up 90 years early, and after spending a year alone on the ship slowly going out of his mind (as demonstrated by the movie shorthand of a shaggy beard), he makes the devastating choice to wake up Aurora (who not coincidentally shares a name with Sleeping Beauty).
That’s a pretty terrible thing to do, but the movie mostly shies away from the consequences of such a decision, spending its middle act on a gooey romance between Jim and Aurora, and then shifting into a half-baked disaster movie in the final act, with the main characters in peril as the entire ship is in danger of being destroyed. Neither mode is particularly convincing; the stars, though both beautiful, have minimal chemistry, and the sci-fi plotting of the climax feels rushed and full of holes. Instead of evoking intelligent and thrilling sci-fi adventures like Gravity or Sunshine, the movie more closely resembles Titanic in space, without any of that movie’s grandeur.
Passengers doesn’t examine any serious philosophical questions, it doesn’t present a grand, sweeping romance and it doesn’t build any genuine suspense. The movie’s antiseptic (and very expensive) look matches its antiseptic storytelling, with only a few moments of genuine darkness from Lawrence when Aurora discovers Jim’s true motives. A big-budget original sci-fi movie that actually grappled with serious ethical concerns while also looking fantastic would have been an impressive achievement; instead, Passengers is a compromised, sanitized mess that misses its mark in multiple genres.