There are maybe half a dozen films to be found inside Passengers, the new rom-space-com starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. The problem with Passengers is that none of them are the film that its trailer tries to sell.
Warning: the rest of this review comes dangerously close to spoiler territory. Please be aware of this before you read any further.
The story of Passengers is, at its heart, the story of Jim (Pratt), a passenger on the Avalon, a spaceship carrying five thousand colonists to the new world of Heartland 2, there to start a new life away from the overcrowded Earth from which it travels for 120 years to reach its journey. The passengers, along with a few hundred crew, are asleep in suspended-animation pods, not to be awoken until four months before they arrive at their destination.
That at least is the plan. But the Avalon sails through a cloud of space rocks, and the damage they cause prompts Jim’s pod, and his alone, to malfunction, and wake him eighty years early. So the first half-hour of the film switches from Douglas Adam’s Golgafrinchan Ark to The Martian, as Pratt rather convincingly depicts Jim’s slow but inevitable descent into low-key madness. Well, we’ll be kind and allow that it’s madness that causes him to commit an unthinkably selfish act that’s key to the story that’s about to unfold.
Jim, understandably, gets lonely, even with Michael Sheen’s Arthur, the robotic barman, to keep him company, and so he chooses Aurora (Lawrence) as his companion. Why Aurora is chosen isn’t really made terribly clear — we can only assume that in the year he wandered the ship, beard straggling and arse hanging out, he looked through the windows of the various pods like they were some kind of interstellar Tinder, and finally picked out a hot blonde he liked the look of, then flicking through her passenger profile to make sure he could impress her once he finally made the staggering selfish act of waking her up, destroying her future so that his would be that little less lonely.
What follows is straightforward romance, with a decent amount of snarky humour from Arthur tossed in. It’s hardly a spoiler to mention that Jim and Aurora fall for each other, but the film allows this to happen without really dealing with the massively transgressive, indeed frankly somewhat rapey, way in which he picked out a hot-looking, well, victim, and then made the decision on her behalf that she would share his misery.
When Simon and I reviewed Passengers for our most recent podcast episode, Simon asked the question “What would you do if you were Jim?” And this is a great question, and one that director Morten Tyldum really should have been trying to answer with this film. There are the makings of a genuinely interesting story here, one that explores the crisis of being the only person really alive and finding oneself faced with the possibility of saving oneself at the expense of another — and then dealing with the actual repercussions of such a monstrous decision.
But instead Tyldum gives Jim a free pass — he agonises over the idea of waking Aurora, but only briefly, and then when she finally does discover why she is awake, they are conveniently given the distraction of an external peril, focusing attention away from the real bad guy of the film, Jim The Violator.
And so the film flirts with being Gravity, along with special effects — none better than Aurora swimming in a huge bubble of water floating in zero gravity — and utterly bollocks physics, while its lighting and set design bring to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey, without ever being as good as either of these films, and along the way we see Jim flirting with, and seducing, Aurora. And it’s done in a very traditional film-romance way, and, to be fair, Lawrence and Pratt, gorgeous creatures both, do spark off each other quite well, him showing off his unfeasibly muscular muscles, her inhabiting a slinky black dress to outstanding effect, but all the while we know the backstory, the betrayal, the monumentally appalling decision he made that put her in this position, and see that, even at the end of the film, when Jim is given a redemption he entirely doesn’t deserve, it’s more Stockholm syndrome than the triumph of love over adversity.
Passengers should have been brilliant. But Morten Tyldum didn’t have the courage to make the challenging, dark and fascinating film it needed to be, and instead gives us a troubled mess of a film that sets up a central dilemma simply then to brush it aside and resort to the easy tropes of genres that didn’t belong.