Occasionally, when you’re with the right someone, it’ll feel like you are the only two people in the whole world. And if you substitute the concept of “world” with “luxury space liner traveling through the cosmos,” then basically the premise of the very star-crossed romance at the heart of Passengers becomes clear. On the outside, it might look like the kind of interstellar travel Ridley Scott’s Weyland-Yutani executives would partake in when leaving the steerage and space truckers behind, but this wants to be a big sweeping love story lost at proverbial sea. Jennifer Lawrence even calls it a “sinking ship” at one point, in case you don’t get what they’re going for here.
Passengers as a whole has a lot propelling it upward. For the fifth time in four years, we have a major studio betting big on movie stars and serious science fiction. Yet, whereas many of the previous films, including this year’s wordy and ideas-heavy Arrival, often attempt to engage audiences intellectually, Passengers instead seeks to find a much more primal and emotional epicenter for its wheels within radiation-proof wheels. Hence, in addition to being a romance, it is also a unique take on the castaway motif with Chris Pratt’s Jim Preston and Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora Lane being the only two people awake and stranded on a decadent spaceship, unable to go back to sleep before the massive ship completes its 120-year voyage through the stars to a new colony called Homestead II.
This focus on the human element, particularly humans with very adult and existential problems that cannot be solved with a punch, laser blast, or quip, continues to be refreshing. And this is in large part powered by the best performance Chris Pratt has given to date. Forced to carry the first half-hour by himself in a classic “Last Man on Earth” scenario, and then required to take the audience even further through some knotty and morally ambiguous choices, he always remains charismatic but appropriately troubling in a role that asks him to be more than a star—for here is a very flawed, and arguably unforgivable person.
His story begins as a mechanic on the spaceship Avalon, a mass-transit ship traveling between Earth and a new world with 5,000 frozen passengers aboard. When Jim’s cryogenic pod malfunctions for mysterious reasons, he is awakened to the rude realization that he’s been asleep for merely 30 years… and the journey has 90 more to go.
Utterly alone and isolated in a lavish floating prison, he cannot even partake in the richest pleasures of his cage (including getting a cappuccino) because he does not have the status of a “Gold Class” passenger. Consequently, he goes over a year without speaking to another human being. Yet, not so miraculously, this all changes when he finally sees Aurora, who in addition to being a famous journalist is also the only other human to wake up early, admittedly over a year after Jim’s nightmare began.
For Jim, it’s a gift to have a fellow traveler in his lonely life, especially when she looks like Jennifer Lawrence, but this is hardly the sturdy foundations of a meet-cute when she too must deal with the fact that she’s been condemned to death—one that was, unbeknownst to her, sanctioned when Jim chose to wake her up.
In addition to its high-concept premise, the hook of the film is how unapologetically dark and enigmatic its set-up actually can be for a romance. While the story has plenty of montages of Jim, and later Jim and Aurora, trying to make the best of it by enjoying the commercial pleasures of being trapped in a cross between a shopping mall and a five-star hotel, it is genuinely dealing with the grimness of loneliness and the desperate actions human beings can make in that kind of situation.
Thus in addition to stainless steel walls and cozy-warm LED lights, director Morten Tyldum stuffs his film with allusions to other starker stories of isolated, wasted splendor. The nicest touch in this regard is Arthur, an impeccable gentleman and bartender, who also just so happens to be a robot. Played with a stiff upper-lip by Michael Sheen, he is cheerful but frustratingly rigid in his programmed limitations, and he looks like the spitting image of Joe Turkel’s similarly single-minded ghost that haunts the gin and ballrooms of Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel in The Shining.
However, the tip of the hat to Kubrick is also a frustration since Passengers seems ultimately scared of pursuing the truly morbid implications of its horrifying set-up for a love story, which the director of 2001 would have exploited with glee. The insanity of cabin fever for both Jim and Aurora is overbearing, but other than in the film’s opening act and Jim’s one great sin, it never quite dives any deeper than Aurora’s Sleeping Beauty namesake into the psychological or truly cross-generational bending possibilities of its romance, choosing instead to focus on the candlelit postcard aspects of its yarn.
Lawrence is given a character whose situation with Jim is the stuff of heartstring-ripping unfairness, but strangely it often feels like Aurora is too passive in her own narrative journey. This is a woman who would not be considered unjustified to send Jim hurdling through the cold vacuum of space without a helmet, but Lawrence is relegated to deliver most of her arc through monotone voiceover while her character writes her book for posterity.
Additionally, the third act resolves the issues for the lovebirds far too neatly, creating a sudden and urgent crisis that supersedes and minimizes all other problems, which were otherwise developing on a fascinatingly human, and thus paradoxical, wavelength. The results are far more commercial and Romantic with a capital R, but also feel like an emotional shortcut. There might be proclamations of love, but audiences will probably remain a little more weary.
Nevertheless, the film still offers an intriguing and original take on the space opera that in its best moments can engross audiences with either the terror of loneliness or also its alternative wonder. The best sequences of Jim and Aurora running through the grand concourse of the Avalon have the vibe of children given free reign over the candy shop, or George Romero survivalists left with the shopping center to themselves and an eternity of time to take advantage of it. An apocalypse has occurred, and the new world they build in it is as enticing as either’s alluring eyes and stolen glances.
These escapist pleasures, every bit as appealing as the two most gorgeous movie stars on the planet trying to out-smolder one another, allow screenwriter Jon Spaihts’ original concept the kind of freedom necessary to challenge the viewer’s morality and thoughts about love in an adult way, all while offering a grandiose affair that will surely enrapture a broad audience. Still, the solution the story not-so-secretly puts into place shields us from the potentially bigger and implicitly more fascinating questions hidden within. As a result, and much like Tyldum’s gliding frames and stainless steel, the film is a bit too free of the shadows that could’ve truly made these lovers’ journey out of this world.
Passengers opens Wednesday, Dec. 21.