Passengers isn’t the movie you hoped it would be, and it isn’t the movie it needed to be. It ends up somewhere in the middle.
Oh, the tricks that studios use to get you to see their movies. They promote their hottest stars as a hook, able to attract an audience simply because their name is shown in big typeface on the poster. They take advantage of popular trends, freely recycling ideas from past successes in the name of maintaining some sort of relevance. They manipulate the trailers to hide important truths about the plot in order to depict the film in a certain, mass-appealing way. Passengers is the latest film that is guilty of these tactics.
Passengers tells a story set in a distant future where large corporations fund expeditions to establish colonies on distant planets. The interstellar travel required to reach these destinations takes many decades. As a result, those who travel are put into suspended animation to be awaken at the end of the journey. The setting of the film is the starship Avalon, where a malfunction causes a few passengers to wake up too soon. As they struggle with the situation of being stranded alone for the rest of their lives, they must figure out the reason they were awoken and the implications this mishap will have on the successful voyage of the ship.
One of the loudest complaints audiences will have with Passengers is that it is a film where the advertising material is not exactly truthful in describing the actual end product. For those who liked what they saw in the trailer, this can result in a bit of a disappointment. By casting Lawrence and Pratt, Passengers basically gives the impression that the film will revolve around their charisma. While there are moments where they are paired off together and that charm comes through, this only becomes as a distraction from the bigger, more interesting ideas the film fails to explore. The experience is not unlike finally getting what you wanted, only to figure out that what you wanted was the wrong thing all along.
Once Passengers’ story begins to unfold, it is apparent that the futuristic romance approach hinted at in the trailers is not the most effective way to get the concept’s more thought-provoking and indeed, entertaining aspects across. It feels almost as if the filmmakers are trying to make a situational-driven thriller more character-driven because of the actors they got to come aboard. The very contrived ending supports the idea that the coldness of the premise was at odds with the more inviting film that the studio wanted to make.
You can’t really blame Lawrence and Pratt. They are sufficiently likable and talented that even in a film where they don’t really belong they are able to do a good enough job. There is some chemistry between them that makes the more character-driven moments work and keep the film interesting, if unspectacular. In the films’ darker moments, Lawrence convinecably turns up the angst while Pratt becomes sad and dejected. I feel that if his character especially were a bit more difficult to cheer for, the film would have had something more impactful to say. Instead, we feel sorry for Pratt’s character Jim when we shouldn’t.
In similar fashion, director Morten Tyldum approaches the film with enthusiasm rather than trepidation. A plot that feels like a concept for a horror film ends up having some of its sharper edges sanded down. I suppose Tyldem’s technique is to match the upbeat attitude that his stars are known for, but this only highlights their mismatch for the material even more. Tyldum is happy to show off the setting of his newest film to the audience. As the characters wander around the massive spacecraft, it always feels welcoming and beautiful. The lighting is warming, the ship’s facilities seem accommodating, and the vistas are breathtaking. The ship never seems like a terrible place to be trapped and the emptiness never feels as frightening as it should.
The pacing of the film is also guilty of limiting that feeling of distress the film is missing. What takes place in the film is meant to occur over the course of several years. While there are some time-lapse montages to explain the passage of time, the film also has the tendency to jump forward suddenly. These jumps don’t make the story difficult to follow, but they do quicken the speed of the film. It never seems to wait long enough for the implications of the characters’ situation to be fully absorbed. This is beneficial in adding a sense of urgency to the film, as well as playing up the fact that the starship the characters inhabit is breaking down as time goes by. However, the concept of the film is one that is haunting at its core, and without sufficient patience to extract that tone, Passengers ends up a bit confused about what it is supposed to be.
The area of special effects is one place where Passengers does not disappoint. Full of sparkling panoramas and colorful backgrounds, the space that the starship Avalon is travelling through is majestic, to say the least. More importantly, the place where the characters spend most of their time, inside the ship, is also quite lovely. Avalon is shown as a sort of cruise ship in space. Full of luxurious appointments and spiffy futuristic technology with which the film never misses an opportunity to dazzle our eyeballs. Nevertheless, all of the extravagance is another factor that aids in emphasizing a lighter tone compared to what the film deserves. Being stranded in space doesn’t seem all that bad when you are surrounded with all the amenities. But again, maybe that’s one of the conflicts the script should have expanded on further. Does having everything you need to live a comfortable life make it a good life if it is not the life you wanted to live?
The film feels like a compromise between trying to appease the mass-market bankability of its two stars while telling a high-concept sci-fi story 10 years ago would have been B-movie material. A minimalist approach full of silence and space would have been a much more effective way to tell this story, but this would have been at odds with the way the filmmakers wanted to play up the high-caliber star power. Passengers isn’t a bad film. At times it is interesting, its stars make it exciting, and it is always beautiful to look at. But the way it brings up thought-provoking ideas only to cast them aside for a more normalized narrative is frustrating. Combined with the questionable methods the filmmakers use to tell their story profitably rather than aptly, audiences have every right to be upset.
What's Bad: Film's approach is in conflict with its intent, script brings up lots of interesting topics but doesn't expand on them, some logic quibbles, unsatisfactory ending, and compromised direction.