Passengers Jettisons Moral Complexity for Rom-Com Convention
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
In the early scenes of the sci-fi drama Passengers, Chris Pratt gets to be every dope who ever woke up in the middle of the night, thought it was morning and started to make the coffee. Too bad for him, morning is still 90 years away, and the coffee sucks. The time is the very distant future, and Pratt plays Jim Preston, a space migrant making the 120-year trek to a privatized off-world colony called Homestead II. He is one of 5,000-plus souls in suspended hibernation on the starship Avalon, "the Homestead Company’s premier interstellar airliner." Earth, we’re told, is "overpopulated, overpriced and overrated," and these thousands of sleeping colonists are headed toward "a new world, a fresh start and room to grow."
They’re supposed to come out of hypersleep in the final few months of the trip, whereupon the Avalon will be turned into a pretty happening space cruise with bars, restaurants, pools, gyms and what’s sure to be an active singles scene. Trouble is, Jim woke up almost a century too early, and there’s no way for him to go back to sleep. When he questions the ship’s computers, they respond with corporate platitudes and doublespeak: They can’t help him with his predicament because his predicament is not supposed to happen, and he shouldn’t worry about it because it’s never happened before.
So he’s stuck wandering the desolate spaces of the Avalon, with a variety of pleasant-voiced holograms, electronic food servers and a robot bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) to keep him company until he grows old and dies. It’s like Wall-E meets The Shining. (And the coffee really does suck: Not being a Gold Star Customer, Jim can’t access the fancy mocha cappuccinos or lattes.)
The repetitive despondency of these early scenes leads him to a moral dilemma. After nearly a year of playing basketball and video games all by his lonesome, wandering the halls naked and slowly going mad, Jim briefly considers suicide by throwing himself out into space. As soon as he gives up on the idea, however, he finds himself beside the hibernation pod of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), and sees her beautiful slumbering face through the glass. He becomes obsessed with Aurora, a young writer from New York, and starts to think the unthinkable: An engineer who’s spent the last year getting to know this ship, Jim has the power to wake Aurora – thereby saving himself from loneliness, but screwing her out of her life forever.
That’s an astonishing and horrific decision, and if Passengers had any real guts, it might have pursued the idea to some genuinely uncomfortable places. But this is a big-budget sci-fi action romance starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, probably our two biggest movie stars, so instead, we get what amounts to a somewhat skeezy meet-cute in space. Jim brings Aurora out of hypersleep, pretends that she was a victim of the same mysterious malfunction that woke him up too soon and proceeds to charm and romance her – all things considered, she takes the prospect of a life spent hurtling through the void in a metal box surrounded by obsequious mechanical waiters pretty well.
It’s not so much that the film ignores the small detail of Jim effectively murdering Aurora by bringing her out of sleep; we know it’ll come up soon enough. It’s that it reduces it to an obligatory narrative convenience designed to predictably draw the lovers apart ahead of the third act – the sci-fi equivalent of Meg Ryan finding out that Tom Hanks was secretly the owner of the big bookstore chain that was putting her out of business.
What, exactly, is this movie trying to be? At first it suggests an allegory, or a moral fable about loneliness and fate and our responsibility toward others, with a bit of anti-corporate social commentary thrown in. But then it turns into a romance — a not very convincing one, I might add – that jettisons almost everything that was interesting about the film’s premise.
And then it starts to become something of an action movie, as the ship experiences further problems and our heroes begin to discover more and more about the malfunctions happening around them. Somewhere along the way, Laurence Fishburne appears: Yep, in a movie that is literally about two white people stuck in the vast nothingness of space with nobody else around, they still find a way to have a black guy show up just long enough to die. (Spoiler alert.)
It would be easy to call Passengers out for its troublesome sexual politics or its way-too-predictable genre contrivances, but really, that’d be giving it too much credit. The problem lies deeper, in the fact that it’s a clever setup in search of an execution. A guy wakes up in space and is facing an eternity of loneliness; what does he do? That remains a captivating idea, and one worth exploring. But in order for a premise to become a film, something more needs to happen. Unfortunately for Passengers, that "something more" turns out to be a hodgepodge of familiar elements and clichés, seemingly strung together for no apparent reason other than to get us to feature length and give the movie stars something to do.
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