Passengers: Get me off this ship

Not even the star power of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence can save this script.

click to enlarge Chris Pratt stars as Jim and Jennifer Lawrence as Aurora in Columbia Pictures' PASSENGERS. - JaimTrueblood © 2016 Columbia Pictures Industrie, Inc.
JaimTrueblood © 2016 Columbia Pictures Industrie, Inc.
Chris Pratt stars as Jim and Jennifer Lawrence as Aurora in Columbia Pictures' PASSENGERS.

Given that it's the holiday season, in the spirit of generosity, let's lead off with a few of the things that are actually good about Passengers, the new big budget sci-fi romance from director Morten Tyldum.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are two of the most likable stars in Hollywood, with charisma to spare. They're also both gorgeous people, and the results of their no-doubt intensive physical fitness regimens are on full display here, with the camera positioned to capture their various form-fitting outfits and states of undress.

The production design work by Guy Hendrix Dyas is impeccable. The sets he constructed for the mammoth Starship Avalon, on which the entire 116-minute film takes place, perfectly capture what it would feel like to be trapped for more than a century on the extra-terrestrial version of a sterile Carnival cruise.

And though a disappointing amount of the work turned in by the special effects team, under the direction of effects coordinator Daniel Sudick, is of the ho-hum variety, they do succeed in following through on the one provocative question this film actually deigns to answer: what would happen to a 15,000-gallon swimming pool if you suddenly turned off the gravity?

Alas, the kudos end there. This, my friends, is a turkey of galactic proportions.

The basic premise can be gleaned from the trailers. Mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Pratt) and journalist Aurora Lane (Lawrence) are among 5,000 passengers on a 120-year voyage to a distant world being colonized with earthling expats by the Homestead Corp. All of the passengers — as well as a few hundred crew members — are placed in a state of suspended animation for the duration of the trip, during which their bodies do not age.

But as we learn in the opening moments, the Avalon sustains serious damage as it passes through an asteroid belt, wreaking havoc with the ship's systems in ways that result in Preston being woken up 90 years too early. With everyone else onboard — save for assorted holograms, robots and an android bartender played by Michael Sheen — still slumbering, Preston exhausts every possibility he can imagine either to find help or go back to sleep, all to no avail. For a full year, he essentially lives out a version of the early episodes of the sitcom Last Man on Earth­­ — drinking, playing video games, gorging himself and growing a gnarly beard.

But Preston is bored and, after 40 minutes of this shtick, so are we in the audience. Something clearly has to happen. And it turns out that that something is that Preston notices one of the sleeping passengers looks just like Jennifer Lawrence. It would be a spoiler to tell you what happens next, were it not so damn obvious what is going to happen next. After literally minutes of agonizing over the moral import of his decision, Preston decides that — between spending the rest of his days alone, or with a sexy reporter and no other dudes as competition — he much prefers the sound of Option B. He wakes her up, making it appear that her pod's failure was accidental, just like his.

Before getting to the kettle of fish that particular choice opens, let's review the premise as it's been established thus far. We are meant to believe that a civilization that has mastered interstellar travel and age-defying suspended animation wouldn't plan for such obvious contingencies as hitting an asteroid in deep space. Wouldn't the large crew maybe cycle in and out of stasis, just to keep an eye on things? Wouldn't they make sure there was some way — tachyon beams, "spooky action at a distance," insert your favorite bit of sci-fi mumbo-jumbo here — to communicate with earth, or with other colonies or with other ships? Doesn't space insurance cover asteroids?

The film at times appears to hint at some kind of conspiracy that might explain away these questions, possibly involving corporate greed, or sentient AI, or maybe class exploitation, but these prove to be not even red herrings, just half-baked dead ends. They may be remnants of alternative plotlines or subplots from an earlier script that ultimately got focus-grouped away. Instead of a red herring, we're left with this stinking fish.

At the film's core is a morally repellent decision made by its protagonist, essentially, to condemn the only other major character to a lonely death. The film proceeds to sets up a romance between those two characters — which, let's be clear, is absolutely goddamn creepy — while awaiting for her inevitably to discover what Jim did.

In a different movie, with a different script and different tone and probably different stars, this series of events could well have proven fertile ground to explore such topics as consent, surveillance and basic human dignity. To say the least, the screenplay by Jon Spaihts is not up to that sort of challenge. Even if it were, Pratt's goofball bro persona would be profoundly ill-suited to the material. What transpires is such a thorough gutting of any agency that could be granted to the Aurora character that it borders on outright misogyny. 

After what seems like an unbearably long time, the film finally arrives at its third act, the less said about which, the better. A surprise star makes a less than surprising cameo and the plot moves all of the most obvious and manipulative pieces in place to push the story toward the only resolution that audience members who really just want to see these pretty people bone would ever accept. As but one example of the groan-inducing dialogue to which we are subjected in the meantime, a character at one point intones:

"Gravitational failure means whatever is happening is starting to affect the big-ticket items. Not good."

Which means, beyond all the other indignities with which we now must contend, the stilted cadence of Trump tweets are even infecting Hollywood scripts. God have mercy on us all.


2 out of 5 stars

Rated PG-13. Directed by Morten Tyldum.

Starring Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen.

In theaters Dec. 21.

Scroll to read more Events & Film articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.