Ever since Jon Spaihts’ script for Passengers was included on the 2007 edition of the Black List – the annual list of the most popular, unproduced screenplays circulating around Hollywood – the sci-fi adventure has been saddled with high expectations. Various directors and stars have been attached to the film over the years, with the project eventually snagging two of most marketable actors in the industry right now, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, along with The Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum behind the camera.
Almost 10 years of built-up expectations can be a hard thing to live up to, though. And while Passengers provides an entertaining outer-space spectacle with good performances by its cast, it falls frustratingly short on exploring the big questions that its premise seems engineered to pose.
In Passengers, Pratt plays one of 5,000 colonists aboard the starship Avalon in the midst of a 120-year voyage to the far-off planet Homestead II. A malfunction causes his hibernation pod to wake him early – 90 years ahead of time – and he soon finds himself facing the prospect of living out his entire life alone on the luxury starship. He’s eventually joined by another passenger played by Lawrence, also pulled out of stasis early, and the pair are forced to contend not only with their intertwined fates, but a threat that puts the lives of everyone still sleeping aboard the ship in danger.
Charm and charisma can go a long way on the screen, and Lawrence and Pratt are brimming over with both in Passengers.
The two actors hold your attention well enough in their solo scenes, and their fantastic chemistry together covers up some of the film’s biggest problems. Lawrence is clearly the more experienced, engaging actor of the two, but Pratt is no slouch – particularly when he’s given the chance to play the sort of quirky, sentimental rogue he portrays so well. Both actors seem perfectly comfortable bouncing between the movie’s tonal highs and lows as they deal with their characters’ fluctuating relationship and the greater threat developing around them.
Tyldum and the film’s creative team also do an admirable job of crafting some breath-taking visual effects that make the movie feel fresh and stand out among the year’s crowded field of outer-space adventures. A scene in which Lawrence’s character deals with a sudden loss of gravity while swimming in the ship’s pool is particularly clever. This and other depictions of how the ship’s malfunction affects conditions inside it do a nice job of keeping the excitement high and momentum rolling along.
Passengers opts to take the easy route.
It’s that constant feeling of being propelled forward, however, that makes it difficult to feel satisfied with the way the film deals with what is arguably its most important premise: Two strangers facing the prospect of living out their lives together with only each other for company.
It’s obvious that Tyldum and studio Sony Pictures desperately want Passengers to be a space romance, following two people from very different backgrounds learning to love each other despite everything at play around them and a deep betrayal of trust that lingers between them. Unfortunately, that lighter, fluffier romantic theme is given priority over some of the elements with more compelling storytelling potential.
At various points in the movie, we’re given montages of the two characters growing closer and enjoying their time together, but the film glosses over the psychological effects of their isolation and how these two strangers really come to terms with the idea of living out their lives together – particularly when it comes to processing an unforgivable decision that brought them together in the first place. For the most part, everything just seems to fall into place perfectly for the romantic leads in Passengers, despite all the factors that could (and probably should) drive a wedge between them.
Passengers feels like it simply doesn’t have the time or desire to explore the deeper issues promised by its premise and many of the most impactful, intriguing events that would ensue. Every time there’s an opportunity to dive deeper into the psyche of two people stuck in such unimaginable circumstances, it opts to take the easy route by shifting its focus to the romantic arc and opportunities for sci-fi spectacle.
Their fantastic chemistry together goes a long way toward covering up some of the film’s biggest problems.
That’s not to say that those two elements don’t deliver, though.
Passengers tugs at your heart just as well as it captures your gaze, and Lawrence and Pratt make an exceptional on-screen couple. The beautifully crafted interior set pieces of the Avalon are nearly as impressive as the gorgeous outer-space imagery in the film. The highest praise for the visual design likely comes from the fact that the characters’ journey still seems wildly appealing despite everything we see them endure.
Although it doesn’t quite live up to the expectations that a decade in development limbo built up for it, Passengers still manages to provide an entertaining, escapist adventure in space that holds your attention while it moves along.
It’s when the film slows down and gives you the chance to really think about what’s happening on the screen that Passengers starts to feel like it’s just not living up to its potential.
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