Passengers arrives with a cargo hold laden with expectation. The script – by Prometheus’ Jon Spaihts – had been knocking around on the Black List of the best unproduced screenplays for the best part of a decade, and after flirting with different star/director combos over the years (Reese Witherspoon and Keanu Reeves were once attached as the leads), the film arrives with the names of two of today’s biggest stars above the title: Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, whose eight-figure salaries have been well documented.
So was the destination worth the journey? Well, like the corkscrewing spaceship at its centre, Passengers is slick, hi-tech and easy on the eye. But there’s not a whole lot happening on board.
The story kicks off on the starship Avalon, 30 years into its 120-year voyage to Homestead II, a colony planet that the ship’s 5,000 passengers will soon be calling home. But a piece of meteorite gets through the ship’s shield and fries something in the engine room, shorting out the suspended-animation pod occupied by Jim Preston (Pratt), a mechanic en route to a fresh start.
As the ship’s AI systems try to acclimatise him to his new living situation, he soon becomes distraught when he learns he’s the only person awake, and he’s got approximately 90 years to kill before he arrives at his destination.
Jim rattles around the empty luxury liner, exhausting the entertainment and dining options and growing a Robinson Crusoe-esque beard, before he starts to become suicidally lonely.
It’s at this point – through a plot contrivance that’s been kept hidden from the trailers, which we won’t spoil here – he acquires a fellow pod-person companion, writer Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a sleeping beauty who’s similarly freaked out when she wakes in her busted pod. The two hang out, shoot the breeze and make plans for survival. And, naturally, start to fall in love a bit. All the while, various parts of the ship are glitching out.
It’s an intriguing premise, and the not-too-distant-future tech is brought to life via some sharp CGI. As near futures go, it feels somewhat familiar – all screens are semi-transparent, virtual reality assistants are oppressively chirpy, synthetic food is served by vending machine – but it’s impressively realised.
Throughout the first half, interesting ideas abound. What kind of person relocates to a place that takes generations to get to? Who exactly is getting rich from the colonisation of Homestead II? And most importantly, how long will it be until we can have android bar staff like Michael Sheen’s duteous Arthur?
While many questions are posed, Passengers’ mysteries don’t lead to satisfying reveals. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) puts the romance up front, and while he’s happy to liberally scatter cine-literate references throughout – can anyone see a revolving spaceship corridor and not think of 2001? Likewise for hypersleep pods and Alien? – Passengers lacks the richness and complexities of the genre’s strongest offerings. Appearing so soon on the heels of the superior Arrival, and even the latest thought-provoking/skewering series of Black Mirror, it feels slight.
Lawrence and Pratt are among the most charismatic performers working today, and their natural likeability lends a boost to what are underwritten roles. Pratt, in particular, has his work cut out to ensure that Jim doesn’t seem totally creepy in light of some questionable behaviour.
The couple’s chemistry might not quite have the Stone/Gosling crackle, but they make a pleasing pairing on screen; the idea of spending 90 years with either of them isn’t an objectionable one.
There’s a humour and lightness to much of their interaction, even if the characters don’t rank alongside either actor’s most memorable: Jim lacks the roguish charm of Peter Quill, and Lawrence’s glassy turn isn’t up there with her most engaging. Michael Sheen, meanwhile, lends terrific support, nailing his mannequin bartender’s ersatz humanity.
With the actors doing enough to keep you invested, and a steady supply of visually impressive set-pieces (space walks, zero-G swims) maintaining the pace, Passengers offers plenty of in-flight entertainment for its two-hour running time, even if it can’t match the tension of the similarly themed lost-in-space survival saga, The Martian.
Its main problem, in fact, is that while it’s perfectly enjoyable in itself, it’s always reminding you of slightly better films that it doesn’t quite live up to. As sci-fi, it feels like a professionally produced hybrid that lacks its own identity. As a romance, it never fully earns your investment. For those reasons, it seems destined to pass smoothly by without making a lasting impact.