At this point, you likely already know the “big twist” at the center of Passengers. Though let me say, something that happens 30 minutes in is barely a twist, especially something this fundamental to the actual motion and action of the story.
But for those of you who don’t, let me fill you in. After all, the fact that it isn’t a key part of the marketing is more deception than an attempt to thrill with surprise.
You likely know that the movie stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. It starts with just Chris Pratt as Jim Preston, a mechanic cryofrozen aboard the starship Avalon which is on a 120 year journey to colonize the distant planet of Homestead II. However, his cryopod malfunctions, waking him up just 30 years into the trip.
After spending a year facing the prospect of living out the rest of his life alone on a starship with no one but a robot bartender (Michael Sheen) for company, Jim does the unthinkable. He wakes up passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and begins to fall in love with her as she falls in love back.
So, yes, Passengers is a story that centers on a romance that begins thanks to a nearly unforgivable act of selfishness and deception. This has been withheld because a film starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t want to be associated with an idea that one of its stars is playing a fundamentally unlikeable/flawed character. It’s also been withheld perhaps for the benefit of not having the difficult conversation around consent and manipulation precede the film. You want to get those asses in the seats first weekend.
Here’s the problem though. The fact that the film does center on such a fundamentally horrifying premise is not at all a bad or irredeemable thing. In fact, centering on questions like that is why science fiction is an enduring genre and putting an act like that into the center of this film could have turned into something gutsy and difficult and fascinating. In other words, it could have been whatever this film wasn’t.
Passengers’ sin isn’t being about something so horrible. It’s that none of the key people here are right to make it and that they all ultimately fail the possibility of this being an interesting story, turning it into a story that is alternatingly soulless and tone deaf.
We’ll start with Morten Tyldum, director of “And today we call them…Computers” a.k.a The Imitation Game.
Passengers is a story that requires a director to bring their own ideas. They have to be shifting and framing the story a certain way, bringing some sort of valuation that comes through in the way they create the story. The director of this film needed to be able to take the story and shape and mold it and think through it and allow every aspect of it to serve that questioning.
Tyldum is not that director. Not at all. I’m glad to see The Imitation Game wasn’t a fluke and he really does remain that boring. He’s a human selfie stick, putting the camera where it needs to be so it can capture a reasonably flattering image with just the push of a button. There’s barely any sort of interesting framing in this film, much less a camera move or an acting decision that seems to try to deal with anything going on in the story.
Which is what writer Jon Spaihts’ script required. This was a big deal script, going through years of development and getting Spaihts multiple jobs solely based on the strength of it. Having read the script, it’s not hard to see why. Besides doing what I think was a far better job of handling its central conceit, the worldbuilding was strong, the relationship between the central character made more sense, and the tonal switches were handled far better. Much of the worldbuilding is still here and you can see the remnants of the other strengths.
But Tyldum’s direction seems to suffocate the most difficult aspects, including the tone management. The film ultimately ends up treating the act of deception as something akin to reading Aurora’s diary so that Jim knows what she likes. The film makes no deviation from the standard romantic beats, treating it not as a difficulty but rather as the obstacle to overcome so true love can be born.
That obstacle of course being that Jim forced Aurora into a relationship and condemned her to a life she did not consent to.
And that’s where the moral repugnance of this film comes in. Not in the mere act of depiction, but in refusing to give it the gravity or the weight it deserves. By treating it as a perfectly understandable act. That’s where our problem is.
But of course, it’s also the two leads who fault lies with. Whatever positive feelings you have towards Chris Pratt or negative (we’re on backlash with her now, right?) feelings you have towards Jennifer Lawrence, the fact remains that both operate on similar star power. They’re charismatic actors who are more old-school showy than brilliant method. They almost always work because you like them, not because they’re doing amazing work. It’s star power because the quality of the film around them doesn’t tend to rub off on them, their brand exists above it.
Passengers shows the limits of that approach and when that approach can even be absolutely wrong. Pratt should not be playing Jim Preston. I love Pratt, but he’s too fundamentally likable as an actor to get across anything Jim needs to work as a character and as a part of the story. You want to root for him and you shouldn’t be, you want to confront him and the film never will. The film wants his starpower, but it uses it absolutely to its own detriment.
Lawrence is simply stuck with an undercooked conception of Aurora Lane (boy, that name). She kind of half does her normal tricks and half just goes along with it all. Pratt and her have chemistry but it’s hard to think that’s ultimately enough when she’s not really putting anything into the character. She’s here and she’s reacting and that’s all. It seems as though it’s been a long time since she’s done a performance that didn’t seem like she was just there for the paycheck.
This film needed actors who were all-in, who were giving the film something, who were shading and trying difficult things and making these characters feel real and tortured and working with the difficult questions the premise ultimately puts them in. Neither Pratt or Lawrence works for that.
But to be fair, almost no one here does. It’s slick and well-produced sure, with its Imagine Dragons original song and its Apple Store aesthetic. But it spends so much time trying to please that it becomes distasteful. Its slick starpower tries to glide past the moral difficulty at its center and makes that stand out all the more. Had this film been darker and more difficult, maybe it could have been pulled it off. But alas, this thing tries to make everyone happy and okay and it’s gonna mean that everyone walks out just a little pissed off.