Movie Review: Passengers

Directed by Morten Tyldum
With Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy García

If nothing goes wrong, space travel seems relatively boring. The audience knows that multiple catastrophes need to be solved. Passengers, a new sci-fi flick starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, cuts right to the chase.

A spaceship with 5,000 sleeping passengers is on a 120 year voyage to a new colony. But just 30 years into the trip the ship, the Avalon, runs into an asteroid belt and is damaged. Several things malfunction and one of the sleeping pods pops open. Mechanical engineer Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt) finds himself alone on the ship with 90 years to go before anyone else wakes up. The ship is on autopilot.

You can tell from the credits that Jennifer Lawrence is also in the cast. She wasn't paid a huge salary and given top billing just to be a Sleeping Beauty in a glass pod. She plays writer Aurora Lane, and somehow eventually joins into the action.

How that happens, though, is one of the film's fatal flaws. It occurs somewhat later in the film and revealing how would be a major spoiler, but the tone deafness of the script about the issues that are raised has left many viewers a bit puzzled and even angered.

But that is not the only flaw. Another is that the film lacks any originality. It plays more like a pastiche of scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ikarie XB-1, The Shining, Silent Running, Wall-E, The Martian, the Star Trek series and likely several other films.

The most obvious rip-off is that the only place that the stranded and still alone Jim finds open for business is the bar, which has a person behind it ready to serve liquor. It is lit and set up very much like the one in The Shining, where the frustrated writer Jack talks to the ghostly bartender.

Jim does the same, talking to Arthur (Michael Sheen), who is a robot operating with artificial intelligence. Jim discovers the bar and Arthur's true nature in the first few minutes of the film, and then spends much of the rest of the film talking to the robot as there is for a long time nobody else. The resemblance to The Shining is more than a passing one, and it crosses to the wrong side of the homage / rip-off divide.

Arthur, though, adds a bit of humor and keeps the proceedings from being dull. For a robot, he makes good conversation.

Jim does find some ways to pass the time. There is a Star Trek-like hologram deck where he can dance to disco music. Even in the distant future people listen to the oldies, and not good ones. The Martian, released in 2015, explored that same idea. It also explored the idea of isolation in space, and several concepts that come up later in both films.

The spaceship itself is something like a giant shopping mall, something done more humorously in Wall-E, the animated film by Pixar. The design though, is fairly coherent and well-thought out. The ship looks impressive inside and out.

A final annoying flaw in the film is even another character turning up very late, just when the plot needs that person to do some specific things. You can see several more names in the credits and advertisements, and this is one of them. In classical plays it is called a “deus ex machina,” referring to a god lowered onto stage to resolve the plot problems.

Jennifer Lawrence, when she does turn up, plays a good role, going through a large range of emotions once her situation becomes clear. Chris Pratt likewise goes through an emotional roller coaster, and is fairly convincing. Though, certain plot developments make his character less than likable.

Coming off best is Michael Sheen as the bartender, managing to be witty but just not quite human.

The overall story, though, when one thinks of the implications, is a bit less than palatable, though. The fault for that falls on writer Jon Spaihts as well as director Morten Tyldum and the producers for not addressing the elephant in the room. 

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