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Passengers (Movie Review)

Passengers (Movie Review)
12.17.2016by: Eric Walkuski
5 10

Passengers Jennifer Lawrence Chris Pratt Laurence Fishburne review

Note: I'm going to discuss the main plot twist of Morten Tyldum's PASSENGERS, even though it may be considered a spoiler. I can't tell how much people actually know what this movie is about; the ad campaign has been pretty murky, settling on a generic "action in outer space" motif when the movie is more of a drama/romance. The big event that shapes the rest of the movie occurs about 30 minutes in or so, and I have to mention it in my review. If you don't want to know anything specific about PASSENGERS, I'd stop now and move on.

PLOT: When two travelers wake up early aboard a spaceship that's on a 120 year mission to a distant planet, they must learn to accept their fate and forge a life together. But one of them is harboring a terrible secret that the other couldn't bear to learn.

REVIEW: You can't force chemistry, and that's pretty apparent in PASSENGERS, a movie starring America's sweethearts Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt that often looks like an Entertainment Weekly cover come to life. It's not that the actors are bad, or that they don't click for a few fleeting moments here and there; it's that you can feel the movie, its producers and its studio, struggling mightily to make us fall in love with its A-list coupling, lending the entire enterprise an aura of glossy artificiality. More problematic than that: The script is filled with issues, ones the actors can't fix, and ultimately PASSENGERS is an eye-rolling slog with overly familiar set-pieces and counterfeit emotions.

Passengers Jennifer Lawrence Chris Pratt Laurence Fishburne review

It isn't always a drag; in fact, the film starts off pretty well. Over 5,000 Earthlings are in hypersleep aboard the gigantic spaceship Avalon, which is rocketing through space to the new world of Homestead II (Earth is now overpopulated and overpriced, you see). Thanks to a meteor shower that the ship mostly fends off, one passenger, Jim (Pratt), accidentally wakes up. After wandering around and realizing he's all alone, Jim is struck by the horrifying truth of the matter: he's woken up about 90 years too early. Unable to put himself back in his sleeping chamber, Jim is looking down the barrel of aging, and dying, alone in this cold, empty cruise ship, with only a few roaming androids - and a friendly robotic bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) - as his company.

It's a thought that would drive any person insane, and for about a year Jim is able to make it work before he starts contemplating saying "goodbye, cruel world." But then he happens upon the pod of Aurora (Lawrence) and he's instantly smitten. Catching up on her backstory (she's a writer with a sense of adventure from New York), Jim begins spending his days sitting beside her and watching archival footage of her charming Avalon interview. Then, a pretty creepy lightbulb goes off: He could wake her up, sell her a lie that it was due to a ship malfunction (same as his) and then he'd have a beautiful companion for life. Jim is aware of the nasty implications of this act; he'd be dooming this innocent person to the same fate that has already driven him to the brink of suicide... but his selfishness wins out, and Jim makes the highly immoral choice of waking Aurora up.

This is, obviously, a terrible thing for Jim to do, but for the narrative it's a promising springboard for any number of dramatic scenarios. If Rod Serling had been at the wheel, PASSENGERS might have really captivated and enraged us, forcing us to confront the many quandaries inherent in Jim's decision. We'd like to think we wouldn't do such a thing to another person, but who's to say? And if you did go through it, could you live with your guilt? But the script by Jon Spaihts doesn't exactly want to confront the ethical dilemma of the act, because before long Jim and Aurora are having all kinds of wacky fun on the ship, making love and preparing for a life together. Jim's guilt eventually fades away, and though of course Aurora has to find out the truth sometime, the film botches the reveal. I've heard Spaihts' original script was more nuanced than the final product, so perhaps he was thwarted by the gears of the Hollywood machine. You can hear them turning within the film as it begins to churn out a second half that attempts to shy away from its troubling premise by manufacturing crises and a boring ticking-clock scenario. The ship eventually begins to malfunction in scary ways, so Jim and Aurora have to work together to save everyone on board. Snore.

Passengers Jennifer Lawrence Chris Pratt Laurence Fishburne review

The casting is predictable. Pratt and Lawrence are two of the biggest stars in Hollywood right now, so it must have seemed like a no-brainer to bring them together here. The Lawrence character is a fairly underdeveloped one - she's a prototypical "dream girl' with hints of intelligence and humor, but she's mostly here to look hot. Lawrence can accomplish that with no problem, but she often appears indifferent to the role, no doubt she was wishing it had more meat to it. She can believably scream and cry with ease, but for most of the film she's phoning it in. Pratt's casting makes sense, but it also creates another problem. He's good in it, but I can't help think PASSENGERS would be a more interesting experience if the character had been a bit more "everyman." The film makes a few half-assed attempts to pretend Pratt is just a regular dude (Jim is a mechanic; so blue collar!), but there is never a single moment when he doesn't look like Movie Star Chris Pratt, except for maybe when he grows out a shaggy beard. Wouldn't it have been more fascinating if Jim had been played by a character actor who isn't ripped and chiseled? Then again, maybe they had to cast someone who is immediately likable, since Jim's actions are so... f*cked up.

But that's just me playing executive. As it is, the casting isn't the biggest problem, it's the frustrating way the script becomes lazy and uninteresting. The third act of the film is a series of unremarkable scenes where Jim and Aurora run around trying to repair the ship before it blows up. Whatever intrigue was earned by the thought-provoking central conflict vanishes like so much space dust. And as for the very end, well, that's when the movie completely cops out and gives us just the sort of feel-good bull you'd expect from a glitzy product like this. Maybe had the original script been tackled by people willing to approach the material with brains and balls, PASSENGERS would have turned out better. As it is, it's just another pretty face with nothing inside.

Extra Tidbit: PASSENGERS opens December 21st.

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