There are movies that wow you. There are movies that disappoint you. And then there are movies that underwhelm, giving you a taste of wow, but never fully delivering on that promise. Passengers, the new space adventure starring lovable every-man Chris Pratt and playful hard-ass Jennifer Lawrence, falls into that latter category. The film is swarming with good ideas, stellar acting from all three of its leads, terrific visuals and a somewhat bittersweet love story, but when all is said and done, and the final credits roll, I couldn’t help but wonder… was that all?
Pratt and Lawrence play Jim Preston and Aurora Lane, respectively, two passengers on a 120 year trip to colonize a new planet who are suddenly stranded together on the Starship Avalon when their hibernation pods malfunction 90 years too early. After all of their attempts to reenter suspended animation fail, the two realize that they’re going to live the rest of their lives alone on the ship and must somehow make the best of what they have. At the same time, the Avalon, after being struck by some unknown space debris field, begins to act erratically as its core slowly degrades over the course of two years.
The first third of the film is a fascinating study in isolation, as Jim spends the first year basically alone (his only real companion is Arthur (Michael Sheen), the android bartender who remains behind the bar at all times cleaning glasses when he’s not pouring whiskey). It meditates on the idea of loneliness and what lengths one might go to in order to have some sort of flesh-and-blood companionship. Jim grows a bushy beard and spends most of his time watching movies, playing basketball, dancing and doing everything he can to break into the crew’s pod room. But when Jim’s isolation takes root, and he contemplates suicide, Pratt delivers a deeply emotional performance, the desperation, intense fear, sadness and regret all swarming under his eyes.
Aurora’s arrival (done in a way that makes her name come off as a little too on-the-nose) is what rescues Jim from his growing despair, essentially saving his life. The bond the two share plays out much like Jack and Rose in Titanic: Jim’s a poor mechanic from what I can only consider are the slums of the future, restricting his access on the ship to the bare essentials, while Aurora is an affluent writer and daughter of a famous Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has access to a larger state room, better food and an overall better lifestyle. But even though they’re from different social classes, and probably would never have met had the pods not malfunctioned, the unlikely pair find much more than friendship on the horizon.
I’m not quite sure, though, if writer Jon Spaihts and director Morten Tyldum seem to know what to do with the couple once they’re together. They follow the simple boy-meets-girl story structure without deviation, making the end result a little hard to swallow. The second half of the film does take a interesting turn when a secret is accidentally revealed and moral and ethical dilemmas are put to the test, but even those grand ideas aren’t truly fleshed out. By the time the action-packed third act hits, the puzzle pieces used to put this creative story together all slide into place nicely enough, but aren’t tight enough to lift under its own weight.
Speaking of the action, Tyldum does an excellent job at keeping the pace exciting, pumping your blood with adrenaline while building upon the love story at the same time. It makes sense as to how these events transpire and you never question the validity (although there are a couple of predictable moments that will either keep your juices flowing, or send your eyes rolling). The cinematography throughout the movie is also beautifully handled, showing a great amount of respect for the universe while hinting at the dangers that may await, especially during the many cutaways to the outside of the ship. When the Avalon slingshots around a sun to continue its course to Homestead II, the imagery and sense of wonder is magnetic.
Alas, that isn’t enough glue to hold the entire thing together. A brief appearance by Laurence Fishburne as one of the crew members is somewhat wasted, his manufactured arrival happening simply to give exposition that we don’t really need and provide Jim and Aurora information that they are eventually going to use later in the film. And when the credits start to roll, the sense that Spaihts and Tyldum weren’t quite sure where to take the movie is evident, making it feel as if they only ended it because it was coming up on the two hour mark. There are plenty of unanswered questions and ideas that are left dangling, and those are powerful points that you don’t want viewers to have at the end of any movie. For all of the great things this movie projects, the project as a whole falls just shy of hitting the right note, thus giving us all a wonderful, albeit underwhelming spectacle.
My Grade: B+
Next week, I will be off, but come back for the first weekend of January for my list of the Best and Worst films of 2016.