Passengers - Review: Titanic in Space But Stays Afloat
Studio reaction films have become a fascinating modern trend. One studio gets wind of another’s project and rushes to produce their own version for some piggy-backed success. Before anyone starts calling Passengers a studio reaction film to The Martian (a male mechanic protagonist stranded in space), know that it was in fact written back in 2007 before a good old-fashioned hibernation in development hell left it in suspended animation until Sony picked it up in late 2014 (fun fact – at one point it was set to star Keanu Reeves and Emily Blunt). Maybe Columbia heard about Ridley Scott’s trip to the red planet and that helped secure Passengers a green light but it’s fair to call its story its own... and it’s one many of you will find different than they expected.
After their hibernation pods malfunction, Jim (Chris Pratt – Star Lord, Raptor training memes) and Aurora (Jenifer Lawrence – Hunger Games, X-Men) find themselves alone on a vast spaceship still 90 years from its new world destination. Can they accept their new lives and how long will they last as the ship’s malfunctions spread?
Without locking the spoiler S-foils into attack formation, please be advised that Passengers is a very different film than its trailer materials imply. It’s a much more character-focused story on the central pairing and in fact, you could even call it a science fiction romantic rather than being an action thriller. Now Bridget Jones 2001, a Space Odyssey this certainly isn’t. Instead it’s more of a reflection on human relationships and our need for social ineraction with a few darker themes to it. We see Jim and Aurora go through several different stages in their unexpected co-residency, riding waves of embracing their newfound life or being sucked into the vacuum of regret over what they’ve lost. They may like and even love each other but are still tortured because all they’ll have is each other... forever. It’s almost a dark humour play on chessey couples remarking that all they need is each other to be happy. Although the more dramatic material of the pair in conflict is enjoyable, Passengers is easily at its best when the pair is sailing into the wind. Any scene involving them having fun or enjoying each other’s company brings with it infectious chemistry. These are two of the most likeable actors on this (and any other) planet and seeing them with broad infectious smiles wreaking havoc on their luxury ship surroundings is wonderful to watch. There are also some great inventive plays on their developing romance within the spaceship setting, like a very awkward first kiss in bulky armoured space suits (which explains why you never see Space Marines making out).
The ship itself, The Avalon, is a name that must not go unmentioned, both inside and out, the ship looks stunning. From brilliantly rendered CG shots of her corkscrew drifting through space to the creative production design of ship’s more lavish passenger facilities like the swimming pool that hangs out into space. Then there’s the robot contingent too. While Michael Sheen’s (Masters of Sex, Twilight saga) seemingly sentient android bartender Aurthur takes the centre stage the smaller service units make for interesting extras. There’s the comedy of the same food/waiter robots having a different accent in each themed restaurant to the scuttling little floor cleaners busing themselves clearing up after Jim and Aurora.
Although the story is character-focused, that’s not to say there isn’t action and thrills; they’re far more sparing than implied but they are aboard this ship and highly effective when delivered. The majority does place in the final act so in that respect it could be criticised, including them purely as forced escalation towards a climax but director Morten Tyldum (The Intimidation Game) plants his seeds well. From the early goings, we get sense of niggling problems within the ship which slowly cascade to being critical. It gives Pratt and Lawrence plenty of heated material to play with and the reactor sequence in particular is a really thrilling set piece. It could still use an earlier action feature though. Even keeping the focus on the central relationship an earlier incident could easily be worked into bonding process during their early days together. Rather hitting pause on the space rom-com for a 20 minute action/thriller interval the two elements should have been integrated.
That’s not the only issue either. The biggest malfunction is the film’s handling of its great central premise. Despite packing in some good psychology, the film takes a very light approach to its subject matter to the point of squandering it with a rather disappointing ending. The final scenes in isolation are fine enough but when paired with preceding events they become damaging and detrimental to the extent where some earlier material even feels rendered pointless. Again, keeping those spoilers away from the thermal exhaust port, it’s an ending that may seem fine when you’re in the cinema but by the time you’ve walked back to your car, you’ll already start poking holes in it. Then it goes far too out of its way to be seen as “Titanic in space” with Jim and Aurora ridding on many key moments from Rose and Jack’s ill-fated floating love affair, she’s first class & he’s steerage, early dance base bonding, “flying” moments off the edge of the ship etc. There’s even a completely thrown-in riff on their “You jump, I jump” line as Lawrence screams, “You die, I die” in the face of Pratt’s heroics. Although none of these similarities are overly negative, they do make it feel less original.
Despite being merely a trio, all three band members hit all the right notes. J-Law maybe the bigger billed name but Pratt takes the lead here and particularly impresses during his solo material and depictions of despair. Once you get past Aurora’s OTT name, Lawrence delivers everything her fans have come to love and expect from her when unshackled by teen fiction moaping. She makes Aurora part unattainable dream girl part soul mate girl next door which establishes Jim’s attraction to her brilliantly. While Sheen provides the perfect foil for either Jim or Aurora to express their feelings solo with his calm dulcet tones, making him somewhere between relationship counselor and a deliberately reflection conversationalist. He walks a terrific line between seeming endearing to the pair and merely telling them what they want to hear like it’s part of his programming.
Passengers may not quite be the film you were expecting but it’s quality nonetheless. If you’re a couple with varied film taste,s it’s an ideal compromise film. Sci-fi fans will get vast kicks out of the visuals and space travel elements while the unlikely romance will send the romantics aflutter and psychology will spark the thinkers. It’s an impressive venture into larger scale filmmaking by Morten Tyldum too, and it puts Chris Pratt and Jenifer Lawrence together.... let’s face it, that was never going to fail. Passengers, get on board with it.