Getting lost in space has long been a staple of science fiction cinema. Whether alone or with a crew/family/stranger, the coldness of deep space is inherently thrilling. Now, when you factor in an unexpected romance, that gives something like “Passengers” a unique spin. Mixed with a “Cast Away” in a luxury hotel type setting, there’s some odd bits on the fringes of this film. Still, it works. To be sure, it’s a mainstream holiday movie, and that always holds true. At the same time, the blockbuster/genre trappings are combined with observations not usually found within something of this ilk. It all ultimately comes together in an undeniably imperfect yet solidly entertaining way.
“Passengers” hints at a really great movie while also dancing dangerously close to a bad one. Director Morten Tyldum has a strange focus, but the written material is rock solid. That leads to an odd tug-of-war behind the camera, but more on that later. Part of the saving grace here is Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in the lead roles. They bring movie star charm and a screen presence that’s needed to anchor the sci-fi tale. Otherwise, this comes close to B-movie material. With them, the romantic angle works well and you become invested in the survival of the pair.
A note on the supposed “twist.” It won’t be revealed here, but truth be told, it’s not so much a twist as an integral plot point that will take some by surprise. Yes, once this event happens, it will lead you to question one of the characters, but that’s intentional. Any glossing over is more because of Tyldum’s rush to get to the the second half of the story than anything else. The screenplay has the nuance needed to handle it. You’ll understand once you see the film, but it’s worth mentioning. Yes, one can certainly make a case about how female agency is portrayed, but it’s not quite a black and white situation. In fact, one could argue that the moral quandary is left somewhat vague in order to force you to determine how you would handle the situation.
The plot is a hybrid, but in a way you can imagine which previous films this is pulling from. Set aboard the starship Avalon, more than 5,000 individuals are in sleep chambers for a 120-year journey to a colony planet known as Homestead II. They’re setting forth for a better life than the one on Earth, but for Jim Preston (Pratt), that’s not his reality. A malfunction wakes him up with 90 years still to go. He spends a year trying to work out his situation, finding it utterly hopeless, with only the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) for company. Then, Aurora Lane (Lawrence) comes into play.
For a bit, Aurora and Jim are just two stranded individuals, but eventually, romance blossoms. Jim has been in love from the start, but he successfully woos Aurora, all while hiding a secret that could threaten everything. At a certain point, that secret will come between them, but that tension takes a backseat to further malfunctions on the Avalon. If the problems aren’t fixed, not only will the pair die in space, but so will everyone else on board. If the first act of “Passengers” is a character study and the second is a romantic dramedy, the third is a disaster movie.
It’s hard to deny the romantic chemistry that Lawrence and Pratt share. At times, it’s downright electric. Pratt holds his own during his solo section, though he never reaches Matt Damon in “The Martian” levels. Once he’s paired with Lawrence, his laid back qualities mesh well with her fiery nature. Both bounce well off of Michael Sheen when he pops up. Lawrence and Pratt won’t be winning awards for these roles, but their charm is on full display. Also in the small cast are Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia, but to say how they factor in would be to spoil things.
If there’s an element holding things back, it’s the direction from Tyldum. His by-the-book interpretation on Jon Spaihts‘ script lowers the bar. Tyldum always wants to go outward and involve space, while Spaihts wrote something far more character based. It’s a flawed marriage that keeps “Passengers” from soaring. Either a more stylish filmmaker or someone better at character development would have been a boon. The screenplay is solid, if watered down in this version from the one that got so much love over the past few years. The production design is really terrific, while the visual effects are strong as well. This looks great, courtesy of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. “Passengers” also has a low-key yet compelling score from Thomas Newman. In the end, it just never fully engages on the level it needs to in order to be anymore more than just good.
In the end, provided you don’t get caught up in the supposed “twist,” there’s a good chance that “Passengers” will entertain you. It’s the sort of holiday release that works as a solid date movie or counter-programming from the true awards contenders. An Oscar vehicle this is not, outside of maybe a technical category or two. Fans of Lawrence and/or Pratt will likely dig on the romantic chemistry and star wattage on display. Some will consider the project utterly lost in space, but it’s well worth giving a shot to. “Passengers” might be a slight let down, but it still works well enough to enjoy without reservation.
“Passengers” is distributed by Sony Pictures and opens in theaters on Dec. 21.