Fri, 06 Jan 2017
Running time 1hr 56mins
PASSENGERS eschews the tendency within sci-fi cinema of late towards rich plots and thematic intricacy (Interstellar, Gravity, Arrival) in favour of a from-scratch approach which oscillates violently between ingenuity and clumsiness. While the marketing flirted with genre convention, the final product resembles a rom-com in a literal vacuum; in terms of tone, it often feels like an outright parody of its predecessors, right down to the impossible sleekness of its spaceship setting. By the time the credits roll, it’s still not exactly clear what the film is trying to be, but the journey, in itself, is worthwhile.
Initially, we get a Moon-esque meditation upon human solitude, with sharp, frequent doses of black comedy accustoming us to the movie’s glacial pace. Jim (Chris Pratt) unexpectedly awakes from suspended animation aboard the starship Avalon, en route to an off-world colony. Upon realising his destination is still a century away – and that everyone else is still asleep in their pods – he sinks into an existential crisis, with only Michael Sheen’s android for company. Hollywood’s go-to Tony Blair impersonator is arguably the best thing in the film, if only for his sheer, cold-eyed eeriness – it becomes clear early on that he’s more a comic prop than an actual character (cinephiles take heed: he’s also a pastiche of The Shining’s creepy bartender).
Passengers’ minimalism (it features but four ‘real’ performances) makes a detailed assessment difficult, but the pairing of Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence is generally well-judged – there’s considerable chemistry here, and the couple’s plight remains sympathetic despite the rampant goofiness around them (this being the year of Star Wars, there are, of course, cutesy robots aplenty). The strength of their performances, however, cannot absolve the romance of its categorical nastiness – the affair is prompted by a titanic moral indiscretion (no spoilers) that the film fails to address in any meaningful way. Regardless of the screenwriter’s actual intent, Pratt’s character ultimately comes off as a space oddity, a manipulative creep, and the filmmakers’ apparent disinterest in the dilemma with which they have presented us leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
Indeed, this is the film’s big hitch. Though director Morten Tyldum has a knack where action sequences are concerned, there’s little holding this all together – new threads and intrigues are introduced at every juncture, then cast swiftly aside prior to any attempt at resolution. The appearance of Laurence Fishburne’s technical specialist adds little to the story, and constant (albeit unspoken) hints at foul play afoot are destined to short-change audiences. The movie’s final act is, needless to say, a PG-13 reiteration of Sunshine’s techno-peril, with none of that film’s edge, nor its genuine sense of terror. Though Passengers hardly lacks original sequences, we’re never left in any real doubt as to the fate of our central twosome; given the movie itself represents a deliberate effort to subvert the grittiness (some might say pessimism) of contemporary sci-fi cinema, this mechanic is bound to divide viewers.
Passengers is very watchable, courtesy – primarily – of Lawrence’s trademark magnetism, but it’s a highly-disjointed project with a cut-and-shut screenplay (the film has been in production for nearly a decade – the array of last-minute ‘changes’ industry execs have surely imposed upon it over the years doesn’t bear thinking about). It certainly delivers enough of a dramatic and visual punch – just don’t go expecting anything in the league of the movies it apes.