“Passengers” is a futuristic sci-fi movie with a very complicated past. Opening Wednesday and starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as passengers on an intergalactic spaceship who are prematurely thawed out of a cryogenic slumber 90 years before the ship reaches its destination, the project has been gestating in Hollywood since 2007. But the lengthy production history doesn’t seem to have done the movie any favors.
While its marketing suggests the kind of brainy space drama that made “Interstellar” such an anticipated fall release not too long ago, “Passengers” has disappointed critics and sci-fi fans alike, earning a Metascore of 42. The late December release date (the film opens today) also represents a curious position on the calendar, sandwiched between distributors’ early December dumping ground and the coveted Christmas Day slot. And while the film is certainly commercial and may still find success at the box office, thanks in part to having two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, the early reception suggests the project is not headed for a happy ending after all these years.
The origin of “Passengers” goes back to a sci-fi spec script called “Shadow 19” that screenwriter Jon Spaihts wrote a couple years before “Passengers.” Spaihts’ first screenplay, “Shadow,” told the story of an elite solider sent on a suicide mission to a hellish planet. Warner Bros. bought the script, with Keanu Reeves attached to star and his Company Films partner Stephen Hamel producing. However, the pair couldn’t get Warners to greenlight the movie.
When “Shadow 19” faded away, Hamel and Reeves reached out to Spaihts to see if they could find another project. Spaihts pitched an idea about a man stranded alone in space, a concept that piqued Reeves and Hamel’s interest. “They said, ‘Is there a story that starts there?'” Spaihts told Indiewire in a recent interview.
On the spot, Spaihts came up with a story about a man on a colony ship who awakens from a long sleep too soon. “I riffed the spine of the movie, title and all,” he said. Reeves and Hamel loved the idea and hired Spaihts to write the first draft for Company Films. “The core of the story was born on that phone call,” Spaihts said. “It really has never changed, aside from many, many refinements.”
The script for “Passengers” was a favorite among movie executives, as evidenced by its placement on the 2007 Black List, the annual grouping of Hollywood’s favorite scripts not being released in theaters the following year. “Passengers” was championed by 38 film industry professionals that year, more than any other script aside from Danny Strong’s “Recount” and Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North.”
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“The first or second draft was one of the scripts that people usually put down as one of the best they ever read,” one Los Angeles-based agent told IndieWire. “It was incredibly well written and the premise was extremely interesting.”
Packaging the script with a director and talent that could get the project off the ground, however, proved extremely challenging. In 2010, “The Pursuit of Happyness” director Gabriele Muccino came on board, with Reeves attached in the lead, but the project languished in development. Meanwhile, Spaihts caught the attention of director Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions, which hired him to write a prequel to “Aliens” that became 2012’s “Prometheus.” He also has credits on Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” and Universal’s upcoming “The Mummy.”
In 2013, “Game Of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire” director Brian Kirk replaced Muccino, signing on to direct “Passengers” as his feature debut. Reese Witherspoon became attached shortly thereafter to play the role of Aurora opposite Reeves, and The Weinstein Company bought distribution rights at the Cannes market.
Later that year, Witherspoon dropped out due to scheduling conflicts and was replaced by Rachel McAdams. The $35 million project seemed ready for launch, with Wayfare Films financing and producing alongside Company Films, but in 2014, McAdams also dropped out, and the Weinstein Company abandoned the project.
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What accounted for all the false starts? According to Spaihts, nobody knew how to properly value “Passengers,” which failed to fit neatly into established film industry categories. “It’s a philosophical drama, an existential comedy, a love story, a survival thriller, a space epic, and it moves in passages from one genre to another,” he said. “Studios resist that kind of fluidity. They like to know exactly what box a movie belongs in so they know to sell it.”
For a while, the movie benefited from the popularity of 2013’s “Gravity.” The next year, as “Interstellar” hit theaters, interest in “Passengers” gained steam again. In December 2014, Sony Pictures Entertainment won an auction for the rights to the film.
Reeves, however, dropped out of the project he’d championed for roughly seven years. At the time, he was fresh from the indie success of “John Wick” but his studio currency had faded. The big-budget “47 Ronin” had flopped a year earlier, not long after a similarly mediocre reception to “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” “I haven’t been getting many offers from studios,” he told IndieWire in October of that year. “It sucks, but it’s the way it is.”
With Reeves no longer attached, the studio landed Oscar-nominated “The Imitation Game” director Morten Tyldum and paired Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence with rising star Chris Pratt in the leads. “With Morten, Chris, and Jennifer, we had three powerful creatives who represented a winning proposition,” Spaihts said. The success of “Prometheus,” which took in nearly $400 million at the worldwide box office, also made Spaihts an asset, compared to a few years earlier when he was still an unknown writer.
“Passengers” was already at Sony when former Fox Film Entertainment CEO Tom Rothman arrived to replace Amy Pascal as the studio’s chairman, but Rothman greenlit the film at its revised $120 million budget, giving it the rare distinction of a big-budget studio movie not based on an existing property. He stands by that risky move.
“If we don’t keep trying to make original subjects, and just keep making the next big installment of the last ‘franchise,’ I believe the theatrical business will slowly die off,” Rothman wrote to IndieWire in an email. “Big, smart, daring, original subjects are really hard to find, and I want to fight for them.”
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“Passengers” made headlines when it was revealed that Lawrence would be paid $20 million, more than Pratt’s $12 million salary, bucking the trend of Hollywood’s gender pay gap. The shoot was grueling for both actors, however, who didn’t have the luxury of a supporting cast, aside from small roles played by Laurence Fishburne and Michael Sheen.
“Usually you can give your actors a day or two off because you can shoot something else,” Tyldum told IndieWire. “Here there was not a single hour of rest, especially for Chris, who had to be there every day in more or less every scene.” For Tyldum, who knew nothing about the project’s history before signing on, “Passengers” represented an opportunity to make a movie unlike any of his previous four features.
“I always wanted to do a sci-fi movie, but most sci-fi scripts are either about saving the planet or fighting aliens,” he said. “This was a very character-driven, intimate film, and at the same time it had epic scale.”
One plot twist that the trailer to “Passengers” doesn’t give away, but that was widely discussed on comment boards when the script was shared online, raises an important and controversial ethical question. “I wanted this movie to be commercial, entertaining, and a popcorn movie, but at the same time, there’s a message there,” Tyldum said. “I want people to talk about it when they walk out and discuss elements, like what would you do?”
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While the ethical quandary may have added a compelling new dimension to the script, the filmmakers’ breezy approach feels like a missed opportunity to add meaningful depth. Whether certain scenes ended up on the cutting room floor or the film never drilled deeper into this territory, there’s a distinct feeling that Pratt and Lawrence’s talents were underutilized at a time when both are in high demand.
In her review, IndieWire’s Kate Erbland noted that the movie’s “icky questions of consent that run through its central narrative [are] brushed aside by the film’s iffy conclusion.”
For the studio, there may still be a silver lining. Despite its negative critical reception, Sony’s projections for “Passengers” are $35 million in the first six days; other estimates have come in as high as $50 million. Spaihts certainly thinks the story he first pitched roughly a decade ago has universal appeal.
“While we will never be called upon to make the choices that Jim and Aurora in ‘Passengers’ have to make, and the circumstances they’re trapped in are rather outrageous, I do think that the questions they have to wrestle with are questions we all have to wrestle with,” he said. “So even if we’ve never been in hibernation on a starship between stars, I think a lot of us have lived parts of this story, which is why it can resonate even though its premise is so fantastical.”