PASSENGERS (2016) review
written by: Jon Spaihts
produced by: Neal H. Moritz, Stephen Hamel, Michael Maher & Ori Marmur
directed by: Morten Tyldum
rated: PG-13 (for sexuality, nudity and action/peril)
runtime: 116 min.
U. S. release date: December 21, 2016
Looking at “Passengers” as a bystander, while the trailer and marketing campaign played on a loop like so many major studio releases with big stars to beckon us, it’s easy to see the movie’s potential. You have Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt (otherwise known as Mystique and Star-Lord, respectively) carrying the movie, two of the most bankable and beautiful actors working in Hollywood today. One trailer hints at a lost in space tale, while another suggests a love in space science fiction tale with obvious slick visual effects. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game“) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus” and “Doctor Strange“) are trying to combine both and while there is an intriguing “Twilight Zone” type premise here, there is also a whole lot of nonsense going on amid some disturbing and unconvincing plot details, making it one of the more frustrating viewing experiences of the year.
The starship Avalon is on a 120-year journey to a place called Homestead II, carrying 4,999 passengers and 500 crew members from Earth to a planet they can hopefully start anew (chances are, we ruined Earth – just like we do in almost every science fiction movie). The colonists are in hibernation for the long trip with the ship scheduled to wake them up four years prior to their destination. A malfunction occurs after a run through a meteor shower, leaving mechanical engineer Jim Parsons (Pratt) as the only individual awoken from his sleep pod 90 years earlier than scheduled, which means he will grow old and die before reaching the destination. He may be the only human walking the ship, but he does have access to all of the facilities available to him, which is a seemingly endless source of options, such as entertainment, exercise and nourishment resources (‘seemingly’ is the operative word, since Jim can only have a plain cup of coffee, not a caramel macchiato, since he doesn’t carry a ‘gold level’ status) which the colonists would enjoy once they awake four years before their arrival.
Jim realizes his enjoyment of and fulfillment from the ship’s resources are limited due to his solitude. There is no ignoring the fact that he is alone. The ship is designed to function and operate on its own (although it doesn’t account for meteor showers). There is no Help Desk for Jim to reach out to and when he tries to send a message alerting someone of his status, he is told it will reach Earth in something like 25 years. This is the first of many poorly designed features on the Avalon. Clearly, the corporation involved did not anticipate emergency situations, let alone malfunctions. The only person Jim is able to talk to is the ship’s bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen), yet the hitch there is that person is a robot programmed to look and act human, while meeting the beverage and social needs of his patrons.
Despite this available interaction, Jim still craves the company of a real human. After a year of isolation, bit of ‘space madness’ begins to set in (complete with scraggy beard and raggedy clothes) with a dash of suicidal ideations, that is, until he discovers Aurora Lane (Lawrence) while passing a sea of hyper-sleep pods and is immediately drawn to her (it’s never explained why he finds her now, since he assumedly must have passed her a zillion times within a year – after all, any heterosexual male would have created an inventory of all females on board). All he knows of Aurora is what she looks like, what her name is and what her skill set/occupation is, writer, which is listed on every pod on board. This information isn’t enough for Jim. Beset by curiosity, he accesses the computer’s files to view Aurora’s audition tape for the Avalon (the guy can’t get a latte, but somehow he can pull up files that should be restricted) and falls in love with the alluring scratchy voice of Jennifer Lawre-er, Aurora, and proceeds to spend hours reading her work (because we’re left to assume that all of this writer’s work is in this file) and in the process getting to know who this sleeping beauty is.
Wait – Get it? Sleeping Beauty? Aurora? Her name is Aurora and she’s a sleeping beauty! Ahem…
After devouring her writing, Jim now feels like he’s not so alone. He sits himself next to Aurora’s pod and proceeds to eat next to her, while talking and reading to her. He is revitalized by this one-sided interaction and in no time he becomes obsessed. Pretty soon, even Arthur knows everything Jim knows about Aurora. And then Jim decides to wake Aurora up – not with a true love kiss, but by creating what will look like a pod malfunction similar to his own. Jim struggles with this decision, knowing full well he’ll be dooming Aurora to the same inevitable fate of pre-destination death, but he does so anyway, because that’s what isolation and loneliness will do (it also turn you into a murderer, apparently).
Now hold on – Let’s take a break here and look at how this movie is being sold to audiences. As mentioned above, the trailers touch on a space survival tale and a love story. Here is a summary of the film currently circulating: The story takes place on a luxury spaceship bound for a human colony that’s 120 years away. Given the length of the journey, the 5,000 passengers are put into hypersleep, but when two of the passengers are mysteriously awakened 90 years too early, they strike up a relationship and quickly become the ship’s only hope of recovering from a serious malfunction.
See what they did there? Anyone reading that is led to believe that one malfunction woke up to people. That’s a big difference from what actually happens in “Passengers”and I suppose I’m getting into spoiler territory by touching on all this, but I do not feel I can go on without touching on the unsettling turn that screenwriter Jon Spaihts expects us to just go with. Not that the trailers or a movie’s marketing should reveal everything about the movie, but there are clear efforts made here to ignore the self-serving, crucial (and all-around creepy) decision Jim has made here.
Look at it from the newly awakened Aurora’s perspective. Like Jim, she suddenly realizes that she is awake while everyone else is asleep and it seems strange and odd. Thankfully, she meets Jim and is relieved to learn she’s not alone, which is unlike Jim’s experience. He proceeds to tell her that they’re awake due to a malfunction. As viewers, we’re supposed to understand Jim’s lies and imagine to ourselves, “Well, what would I say to her?”, but all this plot development does from here on is build a disdain for Jim and an empathy for Aurora’s cruel fate.
Sure enough, Aurora is a seemingly warm and friendly person. The two hit it off. Granted, they are the only two. Jim’s quality of life is upgraded even more, since her ‘gold status’ expands his limited menu options (this is a ship where writers get all access!). Understanding the gravity of their situation, Aurora become determined to figure out what went wrong with the ship, yet Jim assures her he’s tried everything. He’s already made his life better by waking up someone he’s essentially stalked, lying to her and making her believe things are a certain way. By waking Aurora up, he has destroyed her dreams, expectations and has stolen her life from her in the process.
Some may think this plot development is a fascination albeit distressing situation to consider, leading to an interesting relationship dynamic between two people who inevitably fall in love. But the fact remains that Jim is a murderer, which is what Aurora calls him one she learns what he has done to her. Yes, she learns the truth from the mouth of Arthur, a robot – who is acting more human than the man she had trusted. Upon learning this, Aurora understandably berates, physically beats, and shuns Jim. While we’re reeling along with Aurora, another human mysteriously shows up. Not just anyone, but a Chief Deck Officer named Gus Mancuso (Lawrence Fishburne), who is up and about due to another pod failure (but the real reason is to add another character to the story), although it’s mentioned that these failures are rare. Although Jim and Aurora aren’t talking (they had even picked days they can attend the bar Arthur tends), they are elated to have someone else on the ship with them, especially someone who highs upper-level clearance like Gus does. With the help of Gus, they learn of a ‘system error’ which is causing multiple systems to fail or break down and the trio make attempts to repair the ship in order for them to continue living out their death sentences.
“Passengers” sounds thrilling, odd and bleak, doesn’t it? It is. While an original science fiction script is a welcome sight, this kind of uniqueness is too bizarre and unsettling to celebrate. Besides the major decision Jim makes souring the viewing experience, there are aspects of the movie that are hard to truly get on board with prior to that infuriating turn. It’s understandable that two people, who discover that they are the only ones around and are destined to live out their days together, will fall in love, but there is never a moment where Aurora’s love for Jim is convincing and believable. We know what he sees in her and sure he’s charming – but, what does she see in him?
The familiar complexities of the ‘Last Man on Earth’ concept are at play here, but I’ve seen them examined better in other movies and television series, specifically a current post-apocalyptic comedy series on Fox called “The Last Man on Earth” starring Will Forte and Kristen Schaal. Granted, a series can delve into the complexities such a conundrum elicits, but the characterization of Aurora in “Passengers” just seems to be underdeveloped, even slighted. Who is she and what makes her tick? Is she just who Jim made her out to be? We’ll never know, since the screenplay spends more time on the thriller aspect of survival, rather than getting into who these two are and why they’re in love. One wonders where the story would’ve gone if Fishburne’s Gus had never appeared. I couldn’t help wondering what this movie There are other plot developments that are included to add drama to the stakes, but they are added illogical elements that serve to confound viewers even further.
Without a doubt, Lawrence and Pratt are charismatic actors who have identifiable chemistry together, but their recognizable star status makes it something of a challenge to truly follow these two as characters. It’s obvious this movie was made due to their bankability, but “Passengers” is proof that doesn’t guarantee a successful movie. Tyldum’s movie looks good, with fascinating interior designs and ship functionality and it features some fine contributions from cinematographer Robero Preito (“Argo” and the upcoming “Silence”) and veteran composer Thomas Newman, but between the off-putting turn of events in the story and the poor dialogue on display, here is a movie that is completely derailed by its screenplay. Even a bushy-bearded cameo by Andy Garcia is speechless. “Passengers” serves as a cautionary reminder that the success of a movie rests on a good screenplay.