Cinema has a rich history of embracing narratives about solitude. In the last few years, there have been a number of movies about isolated characters. From Castaway (2000) to All is Lost (2013), great movies can be made about figures who are separated from society for a long period of time. The new feature Passengers spends its first act like one of those films.
Chris Pratt stars as Jim Preston, a spaceship passenger en route from Earth to the Colony World of Homestead 2. Earth has become overpopulated so Preston — along with several thousand other passengers — has entered into suspended animation (i.e. hypersleep) for the long journey. The story’s premise is that Preston’s rest ends 90 years early, meaning that he is the only awake person on this ship.
The script by Jon Spaihts explores the concept of solitude on an isolated space station (an intriguing idea, to be sure) before the story evolves and eventually his fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) awakens. The story’s second act features this duo growing closer in the isolation of space where the only other ally they can speak to is a bartending robot named Arthur (Michael Sheen).
Along the way, the story takes some big twists and turns (the details of which I won’t spoil) but the film’s characters make some big (and controversial) choices along the way.
It’s hard not to appreciate the story’s starting point here but it’s also easy to question why the proceedings — other than the decision at the end of act one — feel so safe.
Preston starts out as a sad recluse but eventually turns into a lovesick admirer with little depth in between. It’s hard to truly appreciate his character’s development here, even after he starts talking with Arthur. His character’s personality is never fully realized. Pratt is a capable actor who can keep the viewer’s attention by himself but this screenplay never lets his character truly develop.
After an argument between Preston and Lane ensues, there’s a third act here that shows them facing off against larger obstacles. A dramatic appearance in the feature’s second hour starts out with promise but fizzles, changing up the status quo just enough to set up the third act.
It’s that type of plot device that only makes the story feel so tripe.
The story’s concept isn’t matched by its script, which often settles for traditional storytelling beats. Pratt and Lawrence are two strong actors and with their onscreen abilities, they could carry a movie together but it would need a sturdier and more engaging script than this. It seems like the screenwriter wanted to deal with larger issues here but the story never takes the time or offers the depth too fully realize them,
Director Morten Tyldum, whose last film was the intriguing The Imitation Game, does a strong job bringing this sci-fi story to the screen though. The shots of the ship and the expeditions in outside of the vessel work commendably here, letting the viewer fully recognize the enormity of this vessel (it has 5000 passengers after all) and the difficulties they face when the ship starts malfunctioning.
However, those moments aren’t strong enough to overcome the storytelling flaws. Passengers is a movie with a strong premise and provocative choices but the film isn’t strong enough to fully confront those choices or that premise. The actors and the visuals (which can be truly impressive here) aren’t given the thoughtful ride they truly deserve.
Review by: John Hanlon