“Passengers” should be a slam dunk. The space-set, sci-fi-infused romance features two of Hollywood’s most talented and charming stars (Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt), is directed by the filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated “The Imitation Game” (Morten Tyldum) and springs from a Black List script from rising screenwriter Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange,” the upcoming “Mummy” reboot).
At the very least, the feature — marketed as a kind of “‘Titanic’ in space” love epic with a big, shocking twist — should be far more entertaining than the flat-footed, loosely assembled result. And that’s to say nothing of the icky questions of consent that run through its central narrative, only to be brushed aside by the film’s iffy conclusion.
Even more disappointing than the squandered talent at hand is “Passengers” frequently lets slip moments of brief brilliance, from Spaihts’ canny world-building to the charming repartee between Pratt and Lawrence, and even a production design that breathes new life into the often-tired sci-fi genre. Spaihts has reportedly been fighting to get this project — originally intended as a Keanu Reeves vehicle — made for years, and while the eventual casting of big stars like Lawrence and Pratt should have been the final piece in a beleaguered production, it only further highlights the film’s missteps.
Set in the future and entirely on the luxe spaceship Avalon, “Passengers” picks up three decades into a 120-year journey to a new colony planet named Homestead II. Its inhabitants number in the thousands, and all have been placed into a comfy cryogenic sleep state, set to wear off as they approach their new home, many decades in the future. Despite the tricked-out ship (and the Homestead company’s apparent knack for building them), even the Avalon has some weaknesses, and they’re all exploited when an outsized asteroid dings the ship, leading to a series of malfunctions that threaten the life of everyone on board.
The first malfunction? The rousing of genial engineer Jim Preston (Pratt), who’s so dazed when he wakes that he doesn’t realize for entire hours that he’s the only one who’s conscious. It doesn’t matter much, as the ship is still 90 years away from Homestead II and there’s zero recourse for putting someone back into suspended animation. He’s screwed.
A fixer by nature, Jim tries every trick he can think of undo his terrible fate, and is rebuffed at every turn. He’s constantly informed that hibernation pods simply don’t malfunction – they’re failsafe! – and thus Homestead, the multi-billion-dollar corporation that owns the ship, the technology that runs it, and the planet everyone is winging their way to, have done absolutely nothing to provide an alternate option for their lone conscious passenger.
Jim does what he can to pass the interminable time, including hanging out with Michael Sheen’s amusing android bartender Arthur and taking advantage of the ship’s many amusements, but as he approaches his one year alone-iversary, he grows desperate enough to do something terrible. While marketing would have its audience believe that “Passengers” hinges on some major twist, it’s really just a first-act plot point in disguise. Jim’s plight is a profound one, but “Passengers” is only occasionally compelled to reach for the darker elements of its story.
Tyldum opts to make Jim’s pain clear by employing the cheapest of techniques, giving us a bearded, perpetually drunk Jim as proof of his heartbreak. Pratt was allowed to show more range during “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a Marvel outing built mostly on fun and mayhem. He makes off with no such pathos here.
Enter Aurora — yes, like Sleeping Beauty. In his desperate fugue, Jim grows obsessed with the beautiful sleeping fellow passenger (Lawrence) and eventually takes it upon himself to crack open her pod, effectively ending her future so that he can have some semblance of a present (later, she’ll call him a murderer, and she’s certainly got a point). Although “Passengers” mostly eschews high drama, Pratt does get off with some stirring moments as he grapples with his grand plan, including a wrenching moment when he stares at himself in the mirror and begs, “Please don’t do it” to no one but himself. He still does it. That’s about as much as “Passengers” is willing to struggle with the morally bankrupt decision at its heart.
(Aurora’s fairy tale name is somehow not the script’s biggest clunker; it’s laden with head-slappingly bad dialogue that even Pratt and Lawrence can’t pull off, like an exchange that sees Jim telling Aurora he was giving her space, only for her to respond, “Ugh! Space! The one thing I do not need more of!”)
Despite some initial bumps as Aurora struggles to reconcile her new reality, the pair eventually fall in love, blissfully unaware that the ship is growing increasingly hobbled by the same asteroid strike that first woke Jim. As the ship begins to malfunction in myriad ways (the architecture and imagination that begets the ship’s design repeatedly reveal themselves as the film’s best elements), Jim’s big secret looms over their romance, threatening to ruin everything he’s so carefully constructed. And while the inevitable revelation of Jim’s hand in waking Aurora is always present in his mind, “Passengers” doesn’t opt for a deeper exploration of such a morally complex plot element. Who needs that when you can instead spend five minutes watching Pratt and Lawrence play “Dance Dance Revolution” in space?
“Passengers” refuses to really wrestle with the compelling questions at its core, instead opting to lean on Lawrence and Pratt’s collective charm to keep things ticking amiably. The problem is, this isn’t an amiable story — it’s a philosophically thorny one, and aiming to keep things light doesn’t dilute any of its issues, it just dumbs down the entire outing. “Titanic” in space? No, but it’s certainly a disaster.
“Passengers” will be released in theaters on December 21.