Beautiful people on a sleek spaceship cruising past the most breathtaking sights in the galaxy – what could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, plenty if you wake up 30 years into a 120-year journey. Yikes. I get mad when I wake up ten minutes before my alarm goes off. Passengers is a mix of standard and outstanding. It’s a movie that does some things very well, but isn’t perfect. Flaws notwithstanding, Passengers sets up a compelling situation for its protagonists to sort out and is plenty of fun along the way.
Set sometime in the not-too near, but not-too distant future, Passengers follows Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) as the titular travelers staring down the prospect of living out their lives as the only people awake on a spaceship that could pass for a three-star hotel. Hey, three-star hotels are fine, but you wouldn’t want to live in the same one for the rest of your life. This movie does well setting up a compelling situation. Lane (Lawrence) and Preston (Pratt) are doomed to a solitary life, despite being surrounded by 5,000 hibernating fellow travelers. It’s like being lost at sea – water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. As if that weren’t enough, their flying space hotel goes on the fritz, placing old age at the bottom of the list of ways they’re likely to die.
More than a few films have been set on spaceships, so with a big, but not huge budget, breaking new ground visually is a lot to ask of Passengers. Still, director Morten Tyldum managed a few sequences that were as beautiful as they were terrifying. Because many sci-fi films have depicted outer space so stunningly, the interpretation in this film doesn’t exactly inspire awe. Having not yet consulted with Neil deGrasse Tyson, I’ll defer judgment on how dutifully Tyldum adhered to the laws of physics. It’s clear that as important as jaw-dropping visuals are to any sci-fi film, they’re necessarily balanced against character concerns.
The best science-fiction uses spaceships and strange worlds as a means through which to tell a story about people, what it means to be human. This is the kind of exploration that happens in all movie genres. Crappy sci-fi misses the point. There’s no amount of design that can make up for characters nobody cares about or thin plot. This is where Passengers makes up for some of its faults. Despite a slow start, this film ultimately delivers characters that are flawed and relatable, characters in whom you can invest enough emotion to care about what happens to them. The trade-off for that character development is a sense that this is two movies forced into one. Establishing the connection between Lane (Lawrence) and Preston (Pratt) takes a beat too long, making the second and third acts feel somewhat rushed.
Sci-fi shines brightest when it challenges people to think, to question basic assumptions about themselves and the world around them. The genre exists just far enough outside of so-called real life that stories play out in a laboratory of thought in which Pyrrhic victories get to be more satisfying than typical happy endings. Even with a clever conundrum for its protagonists, Passengers misses an opportunity to deliver resolution that pushes back at audience expectations with moral ambiguity. It’s when movies make people uncomfortable that the most interesting questions arise.
|Release Date:||December 21st, 2016|
|Author:||Jason M. Brown|