Like “Every Breath You Take,” the wedding band standard Police tune from 1983, the new film “Passengers,” depending on your point of view, is either an ode to romantic love or the story of an obsessed stalker.
The action takes place aboard the Avalon, a massive spaceship on a 120 year mission to deliver 5,259 people to Homestead II. All passengers are asleep, suspended in time until they arrive on the planet colony. “Don’t get homesick! Get Homestead!”
Among the travellers is Jim Preston (Pratt), an engineer anxious to start a new life in a new world. His deep slumber is interrupted when an asteroid slams the Avalon, waking him up ninety years too early.
Alone, save for android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), Jim is at loose ends. After a year drifting around the empty ship on an extended, lonely boys night out—he boozes-it-up, eats whatever he wants, plays video games and doesn’t shave—Jim becomes convinced he will die in a spacy solitary confinement long before the ship arrives at its destination. To alleviate his loneliness he goes about choosing a mate to pass the time. After some research he settles on Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a pretty journalist from New York City. “Say you figured out how to make your life a million times better,” he asks, “but it was wrong. What would you do?”
That is the big quest=ion at the heart of “Passengers.” Is Jim a hopeless romantic looking for love or a stalker who plucked Aurora out of her safe bubble to essentially hand her a death sentence? Answer that question to gauge your “Passengers” enjoyment level.
“Passengers” could easily have played as a horror film. Imagine a different cast, the loneliness of space and a little less romance and you would have a perfectly creepy vehicle for Ben Foster. Instead we have a strappingly handsome presence in Chris Pratt who is does, to be fair, seem conflicted about what to do and later sorry for what he did. He’s a charismatic and likeable star and that is supposed to make it OK that he makes life and death decisions for her without first asking for consent.
Add to that some epic scale special effects—a gravity free swimming pool and a misfiring nuclear reactor—and you have one of the strangest movies of the year. It should work. Individually Pratt and Lawrence are spark plugs; unfortunately no sparks fly between them on screen. Each are reliable, amiable additions to almost any other movie, but here they fall flat failing to draw the audience into their strange new world.
The film is at it’s best when Pratt is prattling around the snip on his own, having trite conversations with Arthur. Sheen is wonderfully perfunctory as the android who (almost) always has the right thing to say and the sense of boredom and growing ennui that arises is effectively portrayed. It’s the misguided “romance” that comes afterwards that doesn’t seem to fit. Lawrence, the very model of grrrl power in the “Hunger Games” movies, allows herself to be relegated to the fantasy girl role here, inexplicitly easing Jim’s guilt when the movie runs out of ways to have the pair interact.
“Passengers” desperately wants to be a feel good romance but never quite gets there. A few tweaks could have turned it into a creepy look at Jim’s desperation or an amusing film about technology gone wrong—imagine if Hal from 2001 was an automated customer service attendant—but instead its done in by the story’s sexist undercurrent.