**1/2 out of ****
(for sexuality, nudity, language, and action/peril)
Released: December 21, 2016
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that we have an actual honest-to-God original big budget genre movie not based on a pre-existing property or franchise. Unicorn sightings are sure to follow.
Now that we’ve done that, let’s sigh at what we’re actually left with. Passengers is a sleek and spectacular piece of science fiction moviemaking that glosses up a story perpetually idling on impulse engines. Worst of all, it never delivers on the hook heard in its trailers, as spoken by star Chris Pratt’s character: “There’s a reason we woke up early.” Apparently, there’s not. I’m not even sure that line made the final cut.
Going from Castaway In Space to Sci Fi: A Love Story to a Poseidon Misadventure final stretch, Passengers has an intriguing premise with a compelling ethical dilemma that struggles to know what to do with itself. It’s all predicated on the ridiculous basis that a starship carrying thousands of hibernated people for 120 years across space and time to colonize a new planet would have no – and I mean zero – safety precautions in case anything went wrong. In the future, apparently, everyone’s forgotten about the Titanic.
But even if you shrug your shoulders and just go with it, there ends up being not much to go with. Two of the passengers wake up 90 years too early, the first of an increasing amount of impossible (allegedly) malfunctions that steadily escalate over a few years. Fortunately for us, the two passengers bear a striking resemblance to the two biggest box office stars in the world right now, Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. If you’re gonna get trapped in the cold death of space, it might as well be with a couple of sexy people on one heckuva starship.
And therein lies part of the problem. For as bad as it is to be doomed to live and die before everyone else arrives at the desired destination, the ship itself is a floating space age utopia. The guy is stuck with a hottie and the gal is stuck with a beefcake. I mean, it could be worse.
Of course it does get worse, in part because of a betrayal of trust, but also because the red alerts really start to stack up…but not before the narrative has slogged through one act of existential boredom, fears, and anger, followed by a second act of inevitable, perfunctory romancing. Michael Sheen’s robot bartender provides some charming dry comic relief with a creepy subtext, suggesting a sophisticated movie that, unfortunately, never materializes.
Neither do these characters, each so blandly conceived. He dreams of building things, she dreams of writing things. All that amounts to is Pratt and Lawrence doing their thing, but only Pratt distinguishes himself from previous roles by adding some genuinely understated dramatic chops to his aw-shucks likability. The star power here, as strong as it is, isn’t enough to humanize the rote script (it’s as lost in space as its characters are) or get us emotionally invested in whether these two make it or not. Honestly, you just won’t care.
Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange, Prometheus) eventually contrive some moderately effective plot mechanics in the third act but, even so, suspense is temporary and fleeting (buoyed by some inspired anti-gravity visual concepts). The more things amp up the more it all feels desperate to get some sort of dramatic traction going, even with the inherent high stakes. (Thomas Newman’s score feels like an odd fit, too, akin to the earthbound domestic dramas ala American Beauty that his style is associated with.)
The first-rate visuals – from special effects (very good) to technology and set designs (stunning) – are just enough to make the price of admission worth it, insofar as blockbuster eye candy goes (ditto the leads). Unfortunately, they’re not enough to elevate a reaction much beyond, “Eh, it’s alright I guess.”