With the endless fascination surrounding sequels, prequels and remakes, it is always great when we get a film that is written and created just for the screen (what a novel concept, I know). Jon Spaihts’ script for Passengers has been a Black List darling for going on a decade and fans have been excited to see the original material brought to cinematic life. Unfortunately for those looking to celebrate a worthwhile original film, Passengers is problematic in so many ways. For every cool idea the film introduces various awkward mistakes are made and the result is a confused mess.
All the pieces are here for what should be an amazing movie. Fresh off being nominated for Best Director, Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) is a capable helmer. As mentioned, the screenplay by Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) has been buzzed about for years. The producers managed to get possibly the two biggest stars working today to be our only main characters. All of this talent tackles a very interesting sci-fi story, what if two people woke up 90 years early from space hibernation as they travel to a new planet. It is so strange to see the finished product, you can see all the pieces there and there is a feeling that a better movie existed at one point in development, but the intriguing premise and starpower all give way to faulty twists and a big dumb third act.
Passengers has long been described as “Gravity with a love story” and I can see that. The central story in Passengers, the love story between Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), is the driving force in the movie, and this is where the filmmaking is good. Spaihts’ script, Tyldum’s direction, Pratt and Lawrence’s chemistry, everything is working together to tell a pretty engaging love story in its own right…except for the fact that this love story is undermined by one of the most troubling (read: creepy) plot “twists” in recent memory.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
In order to really discuss what’s wrong with Passengers we have to get a little more into plot details that haven’t been released in the trailers. If you want to go in blind I suggest not reading the last part of this review. Before you go, we can still discuss the OTHER big problem with Passengers: the big third act. After the film spends its time slowly developing these two characters and their relationship, you can almost feel a studio executive writing the note “needs more action at the end.” Its out of nowhere, it doesn’t connect to the rest of the movie, and the emotion felt in the first two-thirds of the film is all but squandered when our two leads are thrust into stereotypical action movie bravery.
So while the ending is a big CGI finale that is disjointed from the rest of the film, maybe the first part of the movie still makes Passengers a winner? Unfortunately not. While I wouldn’t exactly call this a “spoiler” per se, as it happens in the first 30 minutes, this is a story development that was not told in the trailers. If you haven’t seen the film and want to go in a little more cold, you might want to stop reading here.
The Troubled Love of Passengers
Ok, so the idea behind Passengers is pretty cool. Two individuals wake up alone on a space journey, they build a relationship out of necessity and we can see the human spirit thrive in the face of adversity. That is interesting, unfortunately Passengers is telling a different story. Passengers is telling the story of one man’s loneliness and the depths he will go to in order to survive, including idolizing an unconscious woman and forcing her awake (essentially killing her, as they will both die on the ship) so he can have a “hot blonde companion” to join him.
There was a deliberate decision to hide the fact that Jim wakes up Aurora in the marketing for the film. That is not as easy to handle as “Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence fall in love in space.” Now I’m not saying that this idea is inherently bad, the filmmakers could have used this idea to explore the idea of consent, portraying Jim as a more negative character as he forces his will on someone else. Instead, they just move on with the standard love story as usual. They flirt, date, make love and plan how they will spend their lives together, all the while this love story is tainted by Jim’s evil decision to force her into his life.
Essentially, the filmmakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted a sci-fi film that would explore humanity in a challenging way (cool). Then they also wanted a pretty straight forward love story where they want the audience to get invested in this relationship and forget the moral dilemma that preceded it (not cool). Worst of all, Lawrence’s character is reduced to a female character archetype that feels 50 years too old. After she has been forced into this world and manipulated into a relationship, she ends up coming back around to where her life only has purpose if the man is part of it (the line “You die, I die” from the trailer has a horribly different context once you see the manipulation Aurora goes through in the film).
Overall, Passengers is a well-directed, well-acted movie with an interesting premise. It is too bad that premise is followed to its complicated conclusions while kind of pretending that the creepiness doesn’t exist at all. There is a real sense that everyone involved just wanted to tell the love story and ignore the moral dilemma all together, but make no mistake, these two story threads do NOT work together and it makes for a very reductive film. Combine the troubled love story with the out of place blockbuster third act and one of the more promising titles of the year ends up being a major failure.