Movies are an accumulation of thousands upon thousands of choices. The collective decisions of directors, actors, writers, editors, DPs, and even casting agents, add up to the final product that makes it to the silver screen. And sometimes, just sometimes, a single one of those fucks it up for everyone and sends the flaming wreckage of a movie into the waiting fireball of a sun. Such is the case with Morten Tyldum’s deep space romance, Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.
More on this in a bit, but to be fair to Passengers, while it has elements working in its favor, it actually has a lot of problems. Only one is a true, dagger-in-the-eye killer, but there are a number of flaws. A complete tonal mishmash that never figures out what it wants to be, it’s a survival drama, meet cute rom com, and gritty sci-fi actioner, shifting gears between these from scene to scene in abrupt, bone-jarring fashion.
John Spaihts’ (Prometheus) script tries to cram in commentary about class and corporate exploitation, though it plays as nothing more than flirty dialogue. Many scenes, including the finale, are rushed beyond belief, and convenient surprise plot points show up just when the characters most need a way out of a sticky situation. The massive special effects look pretty, but the pace is all over and the movie is plodding, dull, and often straight-up boring. Even when it’s supposed to be tense and thrilling, it’s not particularly engaging—Tyldum’s action chops are not his greatest asset as a filmmaker.
The spaceship Avalon travels at half the speed of light, carrying a load of 5000 passengers to colonize a new world. In true sci-fi fashion, they’re all comfortably asleep in futuristic sleep pods. That is until blue collar mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up early, 30 years into a 120-year flight. Realizing he’s going to die well before anyone else wakes up, he drinks a lot with robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), grows a shaggy beard, and generally goes a little nutty. Things take a serious upswing when fellow passenger, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a smart, charming, upper crust writer, wakes up to join him.
For the first act, Passengers is essentially Castaway in space, with Jim alternating between doing ridiculous things like computerized dance offs and wallowing in abject despair. When Aurora arrives on the scene, it morphs into a romance. The film never examines why they choose this life, why they’re willing to leave everything and everyone they’ve ever known behind, but, for the most part, it works. Pratt has enough charisma to carry the solo scenes, and the two leads have a chemistry that, in most situations, would be a joy to watch.
Here’s why it isn’t a joy to watch, though. Here’s why it’s gross instead.
It’s hard to call what I’m about to reveal a SPOILER. It’s a key plot point for sure, but one that happens at the end of the first act, and it’s an obvious one to boot. As Passengers has been in the works for most of a decade—it was originally supposed to star Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon, then Keanu Reeves and Rachel McAdams—this is also a plot point that’s been out there available in the world for years. That said, it’s not wholly common knowledge, so it’s up to you to make the decision to continue or not.
Still here? Okay.
So, Aurora doesn’t just wake up, Jim wakes her up. After more than a year alone, he stumbles across her pod in a drunken fit of depression, pulls up all her files, learns all about her (we can call it what it is, cyber-stalking), and debates whether or not to wake her up. And then he does. And that colors everything that happens afterwards.
Taken on its own, the romance between Jim and Aurora is fine. Pratt and Lawrence work well enough that if they want make a rom com together down the road, I’ll totally watch. They never light the screen on fire, but they’re passable. Even Sheen as the chipper, pre-programmed robot—sorry, android, he’ll correct you—bartender is delightful. But Passengers doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Instead of being cute and sweet and cuddly, it’s creepy and predatory, abusive and violating.
It’s not that we don’t feel bad for Jim, that’s a truly rough deal. He’s losing his mind and on the verge of suicide. But the moment he wakes Aurora, there’s no coming back after that. He kidnaps her, traps her in an inescapable pod, and dooms her to die. The romance that follows isn’t a romance, it’s an uncomfortable, manipulative entrapment.
When Jim pulls the plug, so to speak, I let out an audible, “Well, fuck.” Even though I knew it was coming, from that point, from the point where he consciously chooses himself over this woman’s life without giving her a choice, Passengers lost any empathy. It’s a disappointing moment and peak privilege. He's sad, that's all that matters, and he acts without considering the ramifications.
Upon learning this information, Aurora, understandably, flips her shit. From her perspective, Passengers basically plays like a horror movie. It’s 10 Cloverfield Lane in space—a young woman wakes up to find a strange man has imprisoned her and going outside will kill her.
In one scene, out for a jog, Jim takes to the PA system in an attempt to apologize. His voice booms through the 2001-esque corridors Big Brother style as she runs from him, but there’s no escape. As he talks—essentially using, “I was so lonely, you’re so pretty,” as justification—we see her freak out on a bank of security monitors in the background (there’s so much leering, both by Jim and the camera). She has no agency, nowhere to go, no options. It’s the most harrowing scene in the film.
Then Passengers pushes that aside for a half-baked “we must save the ship” climax. The life-or-death scenario is an obvious ploy by a script that painted itself into a corner and doesn’t know how to deal with the trauma it inflicts on one of its primary players.
Passengers is macho dude wish fulfillment. Lawrence does what she can, but Aurora is more prop, more plot device than character. She’s there so Jim can learn his lesson, so he can be sorry and have an arc where he realizes what he did was wrong. She’s there so he can sacrifice himself and save the day while she hysterically wrings her hands, holds the flashlight, and pulls the lever at a key moment. Passengers seems to say that it’s okay for her to be pissed, so long as she’s not pissed for too long. It all feels very adolescent and self-serving.
There’s a lot of squandered potential in Passengers. It has two of the biggest, most affable stars in Hollywood and slick, escapist, big-budget sci-fi trappings. And the first act is actually quite good—if it was just Chris Pratt with a scraggly beard playing basketball against himself in space, we’d be golden. But once it hits the Aurora decision, Passengers has no idea how to deal with the consequences. So it simply chooses not to. Instead, the schmaltzy center takes on an icky, unpleasant flavor that never washes away.