The Good: Acting, Tone, Special effects, Direction
The Bad: Predictable plot conceit
The Basics: Outside a generic character conflict that sets in motion a "ticking clock" that is painfully predictable, Passengers is a remarkably satisfying character study.
Say what you will about releasing films around the winter holidays for getting families out to theaters, but there is so much going on near the end of the year that it is virtually impossible to watch everything that is released in December. During the early months of 2017, I am playing catch-up and the first film I wanted to watch was Passengers.
Passengers was released at the end of 2016 during Oscar Pandering Season to offer Academy voters an alternative to Arrival (reviewed here!) to fill the genre niche that has made it to the Best Picture nominees the past few years (The Martian was last year's token genre work). Passengers has a lot in common with The Martian (reviewed here!) as both works start with characters who are fundamentally stranded in space before mixing it up. And while Arrival traded on a fairly strong science fiction premise, Passengers is more of a character study and it allows for Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to show off their acting chops as opposed to working a plot gimmick.
Or, at least, that is how Passengers could have been. Passengers is a creative, science fiction, answer to the two classic hypothetical questions: "If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring one person with you, who would it be?" and "What would you do if you were the last person on Earth?" But the moment the protagonist makes a terrible decision and then lies about it, Passengers becomes a "ticking clock" movie as the viewer waits for the film's core relationship to fall apart from the truth being revealed. And, writer Jon Spaihts springs his storytelling trap in the most banal way possible (perhaps all that time spent with Ridley Scott made him unimaginative in that he uses the old trope that androids cannot be trusted). Beyond the use of tropes and a generic character conflict, Passengers manages to get a lot right.
The colony ship Avalon is headed for Homestead II when it encounters an asteroid field and one of its reactors is damaged. That leads to Jim Preston being awakened and told the ship is four months away from the new colony. It does not take long before Preston realizes that he is the only person to have been awakened and that the Avalon is not four months out of Homestead II. Learning that he is 90 years out from Homestead II, Jim tries to send a message to Earth, but learns it will be more than fifty years before he gets any reply. He is given hope that he might not be alone on the journey when he encounters an android bartender, Arthur. After taking Arthur's advice to enjoy where he is now, Jim breaks into an executive suite and does things like play basketball, have dance-offs against a hologram and even goes for a spacewalk.
Returning to the ship after a spacewalk, Preston finds the hibernation pod of Aurora Lane, a writer who is also a passenger. Preston learns how to wake Aurora up and has a moral debate over the ethics of taking her out of hibernation and stranding her aboard the ship with him. When his loneliness wins out, Preston wakes Aurora up and Preston feels immediate remorse, opting to hide from Aurora that he was responsible for waking her up. Preston finds Lane after she starts to wander around and quickly discovers the perk of her being awake, as she is a Gold Class Passenger and gets better meals than him (a lowly mechanic). Lane starts to interview Preston and he soon learns that Lane, as a journalist, actually had a round-trip ticket and his awakening her completely destroyed her life. When the truth comes out, Preston and Lane's relationship is shattered, which makes things complicated for them when the Avalon begins to break down and a member of the flight crew, Gus, is awakened.
Passengers is instantly notable for the quality of the acting and the tone. Passengers is intriguing and it opens as an intimate character study of a man suffering from unimaginable loneliness. That allows Chris Pratt to act alone, emoting only to the camera and primarily in reaction shots. Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence and Laurence Fishburne are masters of emoting with their eyes and with minimal facial expressions. The trio emotes so impressively that it is almost only through their ability to express emotions that one realizes just how masterfully Michael Sheen plays Arthur without betraying any emotions.
The relationship between Preston and Lane has all the makings of a contrived relationship; two people with nothing inherently in common being forced together by circumstance. But Lawrence and Pratt have such good on-screen chemistry and the questions Lane asks Preston are compelling enough to make the viewer invest in their relationship. The viability of Lane and Preston's relationship might not seem realistic or practical at all for a terrestrial, day to day relationship, but for the "two people stranded without anyone else" conceit, they make the relationship seem perfectly natural and plausible.
As one might expect from a big science fiction film, the special effects for Passengers are impressive. The sets are beautiful and the Avalon is a distinctive ship with a clean look and a very practical appearance (the fact that there are binders around filled with information makes perfect sense for an environment where computers could fail!). The costumes, computer-generated effects and spacescapes are impressive and help the viewer get immersed in a film that could otherwise seem very slow.
Passengers is smart and enjoyable and while it is on the big screen, it is a film that should be enjoyed there!
For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
Underworld: Blood Wars
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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