Let he who has never been trapped alone aboard a spacecraft throw the first asteroid! “Passengers,” the long-in-flight project from screenwriter Jon Spaihts, has finally reached its destination care of director Morton Tyldum. And what a difference a near-decade makes. The current cultural conversation concerning issues of consent make this film – which was always meant to be about blurred ethical lines – very timely, even if it is set in a far away future. In space, no one can her you scream “date rape!”
Is “Passengers” really mainstream apologia for stalkers? Some will say yes, and that no amount of moral gymnastics can forgive the breach that Chris Pratt’s Jim Preston makes at around the thirty minute mark. Others (like screenwriter Spaihts) will say the film lays the groundwork for a nuanced conversation. If you want to be the judge you can book passage and make up your own mind. Luckily, the movie is still a solid enough yarn to succeed on its own, and not just as an atomic furnace for fiery hot takes.
We open with a cool-lookin’ spaceship on a 100-year journey to a far away colony. Earth is overcrowded, and a company that develops civilizations on new worlds is offering a fresh start at various rates of sale. For a blue collar schnook like Preston, he’ll zip away to indentured servitude, but at least he’ll have a little elbow room. But an unexpected collision with rocky debris causes a cascade of systems failures, the first of which is one random sleep pod (Jim’s pod!) prematurely waking up. Once Jim realizes he’s the only human on the ship (Michael Sheen’s “The Shining”-esque robo-bartender doesn’t count) he starts to go all funny in the head. Easy access to the swimming pool soon grows tiresome, Jim grows an epic sadness beard and considers suicide. All the while, he catches a glimpse of the rather fetching Aurora Dunn (Jennifer Lawrence), and becomes obsessed with waking her up. He knows he is going to die on the ship before landing (technologically, he can not go back into deep sleep) and he needs a companion.
“Passengers” does its best to make Lawrence’s sex appeal only part of the bargain. Aurora is a writer, and Jim falls in love with her words. He knows he shouldn’t, but after a year alone, he does rouse her, and then begins the task of “being a nice guy” until the two are in love. In time she learns the truth (he basically murders her, let’s be real), but then the movie downshifts into Hollywood adventure mode and Jim has the opportunity to redeem himself. The movie gets its chances, too, and there are many possible endings that seem fathomable. The route that’s chosen may earn applause or it may earn hisses – it all comes down to how much you buy it.
Ultimately, I don’t buy it. It’s the fault of Tyldum, whose “going mad” and “falling in love” montages don’t have the urgency they need. These are bold screenwriting strokes and to do them right you need to bring the heat. Pratt does the best he can with his transformation over the course of the film, but his performance isn’t enough. (Lawrence doesn’t fare as well, but it’s not really her movie, it’s Pratt’s.)
That said, the movie is propulsive and, if you aren’t nauseated by the ethics, quite engaging. Not for a moment was I bored, and the look of the ship and its interstellar accoutrements are quite nifty. (Swimming pools in zero gravity? Never thought of that one before!) “Passengers” feels like the adaptation of a great short story from a pulp mag like Analog Science Fiction & Fact – just one published over forty years ago. [B-/C+]