The meet-cute between Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers isn’t so cute; it touches on messy ethical questions, and matters of life and death. As future-world earthlings en route to another planet, they’re supposed to be in a state of suspended animation, not awake and functioning and falling in love. But things happen when you’re in a sci-fi adventure.
There is, at first, a thrilling what-if in Jon Spaihts’ screenplay, which concocts a sort of Titanic in outer space, with dollops of “Sleeping Beauty” and Gravity thrown into the high-concept mix. Under less shiny, by-the-numbers direction, the story might have soared, or at least been more stirring. Yet while Passengers offers a few shrewd observations about our increasingly tech-enabled, corporatized lives, its heavy-handed mix of life-or-death exigencies and feel-good bromides finally feels like a case of more being less. Whatever the critical consensus, though, the marquee leads are sure to entice moviegoers seeking grown-up action-adventure.
As he showed in his first English-language feature, The Imitation Game, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum knows how to hit the prescribed emotional notes, but subtlety is not his strong suit. Even with striking visual design and seamless digital effects, he struggles to conjure an all-encompassing sense of wonder — and danger — from the deep-space setting, however insistent Thomas Newman’s score.
Among the quandaries that Passengers poses, the most terrifying might be “What if you were trapped on a cruise ship for the rest of your life?” In this case the ship is the Avalon, an ultra-automated luxury interstellar airliner that’s ferrying 5,000 paying passengers and 200-odd crew members, all enclosed in devices designed to keep them fresh and healthy and inanimate for the 120-year journey from Earth. At the other end of the trip is a new start on Homestead II, the antidote to “overpopulated, overpriced and overrated” Earth, as the marketing spiel of the project’s mega-profitable corporation describes it.
For one passenger, mechanical engineer Jim Preston, that new start offers a sense of purpose he’s found lacking on the home planet. Jim is a salt-of-the-earth, old-school kind of guy, the sort who believes in building things with his hands — apparently a skill that’s no longer in demand where he comes from. After a meteor hit causes a malfunction that releases Jim from his hibernation pod 90 years early, he finds himself wandering the cavernous Avalon — sleekly designed by Guy Hendrix Dyas — and seeking answers, in vain, from holograms and chirpy disembodied voices. It’s the three-dimensional equivalent of trying to reach a human being on a customer-service phone line.
But Jim’s situation is far more dire than being in telephonic limbo; unless he can find a way to return to his deep sleep, Jim will spend the rest of his life alone and die before reaching the promised land. When he finally finds a way to send a message to the company’s HQ, he’s assured that he can expect a response in about half a century.
So what’s a lost-in-space guy to do but avail himself of the fine dining, game rooms and VIP quarters? He becomes a regular in the dazzling jewel-toned bar where android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) dispenses robotic words of understanding and encouragement with a touch of human sympathy, if not understanding. By the time a second passenger is prematurely up and about, Jim has become a boozy slob who’s contemplating suicide. But instead of ending his life, he chooses to end his loneliness.
The other awakened passenger is writer Aurora Lane (Lawrence), who Jim first noticed as a sleeping beauty in her transparent hibernation pod. Here the screenplay touches on a perhaps burning question for these times — can you truly fall in love with someone on the basis of their online profile? That’s what Jim claims to have done while Aurora was still in suspended animation. Once they’re awake together, their rescue options exhausted, they put aside the pressing sense of mortality and embark on a proper courtship in the well-appointed facilities.
She’s a Gold Class passenger — which entails far better breakfasts, for starters — and her aim is to return to New York on a roundtrip ticket having written the first book about Homestead II. The pairing of working-class guy and creative-class jet-setter is explained more than felt, as are the motivating factors that led Jim and Aurora to take such an extraordinary leap into the unknown. Though they’re clearly tough and resilient, no underlying sense of urgency or drive comes through, especially not in Pratt’s even-keeled Mr. Fix-It. The necessary fire is missing from their chemistry, until Aurora’s fury at discovering a crucial piece of information that Jim has been keeping from her.
But both leads spring into convincingly treacherous action, inside the Avalon and on tethered space walks, as the ship’s various systems falter. They’re joined all too briefly by a knowledgeable crew member played by Laurence Fishburne — a vivid reminder that even with the highest technology the world has to offer, sometimes only a human being can provide the necessary information. (Appearing even more briefly is a wordless Andy Garcia.)
Before the emergency builds to a hectic, ineffective overload of factoids and feats, Tyldum stages a top-notch set piece featuring ace f/x work. The sequence, persuasively performed by Lawrence and dynamically shot by d.p. Rodrigo Prieto, involves a lapse in the ship’s gravity and its effect on the swimming pool where Aurora does laps in a stylish fishnet bathing suit (Jany Temime’s elegant costumes make her the best-dressed woman in space).
Given the imaginative setup and the material’s provocative questions about mortality — not to mention the future of humankind — the movie’s neat lessons about the nature of happiness and a life well lived feel too easy, too obvious. It’s enough to make you wonder if the work that Aurora longs to write has been a self-help book all along.
Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, LStar Capital, Village Roadshow Pictures, Wanda Pictures, Original Film, Company Films, Start Motion Pictures
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Emma Clarke
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenwriter: Jon Spaihts
Producers: Stephen Hamel, Michael Maher, Neal H. Moritz, Ori Marmur
Executive producers: David Householter, Ben Browning, Jon Spaihts, Bruce Berman, Greg Basser, Ben Waisbren, Lynwood Spinks
Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Costume designer: Jany Temime
Editor: Maryann Brandon
Composer: Thomas Newman
Casting: Francine Maisler
PG-13, 116 minutes