It’s not a very scintillating title, Passengers, is it? Especially for a film about a kilometre-long ship hurtling through space with the two romantic leads trapped inside it. Love’s Labour’s Lost In Space might have suited it better, had Futurama not beaten screenwriter Jon Spaihts to the punch by about 17 years. So Passengers it is: the latest film from Norwegian director Mortum Tyldum, who previously brought us the superb Jo Nesbo-adapted thriller Headhunters and Oscar-nominated Alan Turing drama, The Imitation Game.
Passengers stars Hollywood leading man of the moment Chris Pratt as Jim, a 30-something engineer on a ship, the Avalon, bound for a new, Earth-like planet. Remember those floating adverts in Blade Runner which promised “the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure”? Jim’s fallen for a similar sales pitch. As a result, he’s one of 5,000 earthlings who’ve had themselves frozen for the 120-year-long trip to a lush, distant world called Homestead II.
Due to a cascading domino effect of screw-ups, however, Jim’s cryo pod spits him out just 30 years into the journey, leaving him alone on the huge, echoing ship with nobody to talk to but an android bartender played by Michael Sheen. At first, Jim whiles away week after week with the kind of diversions you might find on an Earth-bound luxury liner: videogames (or one videogame, apparently modelled on Dance Dance Revolution), a cinema, and copious amounts of booze served up with a flourish by Mr Sheen. Inevitably, though, boredom and a general feeling of mania set in, until Jim’s joined on his journey by another waking passenger, 20-something writer New York writer, Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence).
A space-bound romance ensues, and for a while, Jim and Aurora are Adam and Eve in the ship’s Apple Store-like Eden – that is, until their bliss is punctuated by complications both personal and technical.
Like the incident that triggers Jim’s premature awakening, Passengers is something of an anomaly. Quite why Sony decided to throw a generous $110m at this slight sci-fi tale, much less turn it into a star vehicle for Pratt and Lawrence, is a mystery known only to some studio execs on the west coast of America. Certainly, there’s a more interesting, quirkier tale struggling to get out beneath the sumptuous yet studiously bland surface gloss; there are some worthwhile sentiments in here about loneliness and the limits of technology – that is, it can supply every comfort except for human warmth – but they’re prodded at rather than satisfyingly explored. Likewise a plot point about Aurora being a higher-class passenger than Jim, a detail which could have been mined for more drama and laughs but is instead swept aside for another 12A-friendly love scene.
If you can imagine a low-budget, rough-hewn gem from the 70s like Dark Star or Silent Running cleaned up, smoothed down and presented as a Hollywood star vehicle, then you’ll get a vague idea of how flat Passengers becomes. Silent Running needed Bruce Dern’s beguiling, wild-eyed performance as a gardener kept company by his robots in a rocket-powered greenhouse. Dark Star needed its grunginess and grinning satire. Passengers has none of these things; instead, it has Pratt and Lawrence, occasionally upset and a bit dishevelled but mostly flirty and radiant.
The echoing ship, a five-star liner that’s starting to fray round the edges, nudges at all kinds of dark mysteries yet fails to deliver on them; pointed nods to The Shining – another film about a certain kind of cabin fever – are little more than flourishes on the part of the production designer.
Worse still, Passengers is an oddly, quaintly conservative movie for 2016; Lawrence, who played one of the most memorable sci-fi heroines of the decade in The Hunger Games, is asked to inhabit a rather more demure character here, while Chris Pratt, just as he did in Guardians Of The Galaxy and Jurassic World, gets to play a loveable uber-male who’s good at fixing things. Passengers might have been more satisfying had the stereotypes been reversed. By the same token, a frankly creepy plot point, which is quickly papered over, would have been better left in the first draft.
In a festive season dominated by Star Wars: Rogue One, Passengers offers a new Hollywood golden couple as a bit of alternative programming. The sight of the two drinking champagne, swimming and snogging among the film’s admittedly handsome sets might be enough for some. For those who like their science fiction with a little more thematic and emotional heft, however, Passengers will likely prove to be a disappointingly empty vessel.
Passengers is out in UK cinemas on the 21st December.