If you had to cast two Hollywood actors to watch being all by themselves in a luxury starliner on a doomed 90-year voyage to a planet they will never live to see, you might just pick Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. In a way, that’s the problem with Passengers, or where the problems begin.
Pratt plays Jim Preston, a mechanical engineer who awakens from suspended animation on the starship Avalon to a preprogrammed message that only four months remain of the ship’s 120-year trip to the Homestead II colony. The only trouble is that the other 5,000-plus passengers are still asleep. And it’s 90 years too early. And there’s no way to get help — or to get back to sleep.
As existential crises go, this is a poignant one. There are some canny conceits, such as the cheerful computer interfaces that go in circles answering your questions, like being trapped inside a trillion-dollar voicemail system from hell — in outer space, 20 light-years from Earth. The hibernation units do not and cannot malfunction, except when they do, and the ship may be malfunctioning in other ways as well.
Fortunately the Avalon is stocked and loaded to support thousands of passengers and crew for the last four months of the trip, so there’s plenty of food and amenities — though Jim can’t get a good cup of coffee or a nice hot breakfast, since, in what turns out to be the worst economizing call of his life, he hadn’t sprung for the premium package. Sometimes four months turns into your whole life.
Michael Sheen shows up as an android bartender named Arthur who’s just human and personable enough for his limited answers to be frustrating. “You’re not where you want to be — you feel like you’re supposed to be somewhere else, right?” he says with approximate, algorithmic empathy. Later, when Jim hits him with a big philosophical question, Arthur says confidingly, “Jim … these are not robot questions.”
Jim is a clever guy, and he tries everything he can think of to get at the sleeping crew members, whose hibernation units are in a separate, heavily secured area. He gives himself over to hedonistic excess and apathy, because why not. In a particularly dark mood, he contemplates suicide. And then…
Then, after a year of solitude, salvation comes to Jim — salvation to him, but damnation for a second soul, Lawrence’s Aurora Lane, a journalist traveling to Homestead II for a story 240 years in the writing by the time she files it back on Earth. Aurora works quickly through the five stages of finding that you’re trapped for the rest of your life on a starship with Chris Pratt, and before long inevitable sparks fly between Jim and Aurora.
From the trailer you might suppose that the odds are rather low of the two people out of thousands anomalously waking up being such splendid male and female specimens as Pratt and Lawrence, but it turns out to be approximately half as unlikely as it seems. While there’s certainly a male-fantasy conceit here, it’s not that the second person who wakes up is as lovely and fit as Katniss Everdeen, but that the first is as buff and handsome as Star-Lord. I am now thinking of a slightly nastier version of this movie in which Lawrence wakes up and finds herself alone on a ship with John C. Reilly or Brendan Gleeson.
With Aurora, Jim has everything he would want in a companion on the Avalon for the rest of his life — even hot breakfasts with great coffee. She’s the premium package, as it were. Hell becomes paradise and Aurora is Eve to Jim’s Adam. But we know a fall is in the cards, and when it comes, it’s a doozy.
Some readers will have guessed what never occurred as a possibility to the journalist Aurora, which is that (spoiler alert) her waking up was not caused by the same kind of anomalous hibernation malfunction as Jim’s. In his loneliness and despair, Jim became infatuated with the sleeping Aurora; he read her writing and watched her videos from her passenger profile. He was appalled at himself for even thinking of waking her up; he argued with himself and tried to resist, but in the end one moment of desperate weakness was all it took.
Aurora learning the truth is perhaps where the story would end on an episode of The Twilight Zone. Perhaps it would have started with Aurora waking up and finding Jim, and we wouldn’t find out until the end that Jim was responsible for Aurora waking up. It could be a pretty good episode, because the situation is basically unresolvable: two people in an unworkable scenario, having no one but each other, but separated by the enormity of Jim’s crime against Aurora.
If you want to keep telling the story, there are some directions you could take it — most of them pretty dark. The problem is that Pratt and Lawrence make too adorable a couple to wind up anyplace dark. Viewers can’t help rooting for them to be together, even if the whole basis of their relationship is Jim unilaterally derailing Aurora’s life.
Actually, Lawrence going dark places is all right. The more she suffered in The Hunger Games, the more her fans loved her. The essence of Pratt’s appeal, though, is charm, preferably in an archly comic, insouciant mode. Whether or not Pratt could play a genuinely unlikable character, given the right script and the right direction, this is not that script and Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) does not appear to be that director.
So the movie makes a show of acknowledging the gravity of Jim’s crime while continuing to make excuses for him (“A drowning man will always drag somebody down with him,” Aurora is told by a third character), and angling toward his redemption and Aurora’s forgiveness, or rather willingness to let bygones be bygones. Passengers doesn’t want to acknowledge how creepy and Stockholm syndrome-esque almost any version of this relationship must be.
Passengers has a great initial premise, one that raises potentially fascinating psychological and moral questions — not about right and wrong, but about how people cope with untenable situations. It could have worked as a ruthless indie starring two actors you never heard of.
Even in the last act, with the plot crashing and burning in silly heroics, I harbored a faint hope that a bold move might be around the corner. At some point, though, it becomes clear that the filmmakers know they’ve got two of the most attractive, likeable superstars in Hollywood in a no-win scenario where losing isn’t an option.
Parting thought: Last month Arrival offered another sci-fi depiction of a romantic relationship that began with one party harboring a potentially relationship-ending secret. At a key moment in this relationship comes the question “Want to make a baby?” Did anyone involved in the making of Passengers ever ask themselves whether this Adam and Eve story ought to involve offspring?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.