Without a doubt, Passengers is a beautiful film to look at. Great care has been made by director Morten Tyldum and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto to ensure that every frame is a joy, and the human stars are just as pretty and perfect as the set design and the special effects. But underneath the polished surface veneer there are problems to be found, both in the story by Jon Spaihts and in its on-screen execution.
The star of Passengers is Chris Pratt who plays mechanical engineer Jim Preston. He’s travelling in the economy class of the starship Avalon which is taking a cargo of 5000 colonists and 258 crew members in suspended animation to the planet Homestead II. It’s a journey of 120 years – but a quarter of the way into the trip, Jim is suddenly woken from hibernation. No one else is revived. With no way to be put back in stasis, Jim will be dead long before the Avalon reaches its destination.
Despite having the run of the place, Jim quickly starts to go barking mad in his solitary isolation, with only a robot bartender for company (Michael Sheen on top arch form.) The temptation to wake someone else up to keep him company – even though it means handing them the same death sentence – becomes too much for him, and so he manually revives Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) to share his fate. Without telling her what he’s done, of course.
Many critics have objected to the film because of Jim’s immoral actions, but in fact this decision and its repercussions are the very heart of the film. Jim doesn’t get off lightly: he immediately regrets what he does and comes to pay the price. However, the film is too busy being a visual delight to give proper weight to the dark side of the situation, and Pratt himself is too likeable for us to ever really hold it against him and censure him as much as he should be.
The film doesn’t really even do a good job in setting up Jim’s desperation: his early months of isolation are told in a montage of him exploring the ship’s facilities and entertainments, and are chiefly distinguished by the character’s lengthening beard. At the speed it’s all presented, it actually looks like rather a nice existence. Even his brief consideration of suicide is overshadowed by how it takes place against the backdrop of a spectacular space walk.
The main section of the film is the slow development of a romance between Jim and Aurora, which is rather touching and almost like a modern fairy tale – until truths begin to emerge. The final act moves the film into a more action-oriented genre with a cameo from Laurence Fishburne as they try and save the Avalon from imminent disaster. It makes for an uneven film, but it never feels like the ship is heading toward anything other than a happy-ish ending. Consequently it’s hard to feel a sense of danger or excitement.
The film is very pretty, and an easy-going watch, but its inability to make best use of its more serious aspects results in a lack of any genuine substance. The whole thing comes off as a rather bland confection. It’s likeable but insubstantial, an easy and enjoyable watch that just as easily and quickly slips from the memory after viewing.
Rating: ★ ★ 1/2
Passangers is available on DVD and Blu-ray.