Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (Headhunters, The Imitation Game), Passengers is a romantic science fiction disaster adventure film starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. As you might have guessed from the previous sentence, Passengers suffers from multiple genre-nality disorder. It starts out as an interesting if slightly troubling sci-fi story in the first act, transitions into a fairly generic Hollywood romance in the second and finally becomes a Deepwater Horizon style disaster flick in the third act. Each story is appealing in its own way but taken together they make for a dissociative and thus somewhat unsatisfying movie-going experience.
Passengers opens with an eerily beautiful shot of the starship Avalon silently and slowly rotating in deep space. The helical vessel is 30 years into its 120 year journey from an overpopulated, futuristic Earth to the pristine colony planet Homestead II when a large asteroid crashes into its hull. None of the Avalon’s 5000 passengers notice the collision because they are safely encased in hibernation pods but the resulting damage eventually causes one pod to malfunction and awaken mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Pratt). Jim’s bemusement quickly turns to horror when he realizes that he has woken 90 years too soon.
(Readers who have yet to see Passengers may want to stop here as the following paragraphs contain material some may consider spoilers.)
With no way to re-enter the hibernation pod Jim is left to face a terrifying future with only an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) for company. Months pass and the crushing loneliness and existential torment of Jim’s existence inevitably begins eating at him. We see him staggering through spotless, illuminated hallways, dishevelled, half-naked, aggressively intoxicated and increasingly suicidal. He seems to be on the verge of ending it all when he first notices a sleeping blonde with the groan worthy name Aurora Lane (Lawrence) in a nearby pod. What Jim does next is both unthinkable and understandable, an act of profound cruelty and selfishness from what the movie would have us believe is a drowning man.
Any pleasure the audience would usually derive from watching two attractive, enormously likeable movie stars falling in love on-screen is undercut in Passengers by our awareness of Jim’s crime. Romantic movie tropes that would ordinarily be charming instead come across as creepy or sinister and there’s something intensely tragic about seeing Aurora slowly accepting her new life of “travelling forever, never arriving” because she found love with this man who essentially stole her old life from her. The film’s strongest scenes come after Aurora learns the truth and Jennifer Lawrence gets to unleash the full force of her character’s entirely justified rage and heartbreak at Jim.
It is therefore rather disappointing when Tyldum and screenwriter John Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) quickly pivot away from Aurora’s pain and the moral and emotional conflict between their two main characters in the film’s action heavy third act. There is some undeniably beautiful imagery in this final section of Passengers, including a striking set piece involving the Avalon’s infinity pool and a sudden loss of gravity due to system malfunction, but it still isn’t as compelling as a scene showing a wrathful, weeping Aurora physically attacking Jim in his sleep. The film also ends on a somewhat sour note with its most sympathetic character making a decision that feels both implausible and strangely dispiriting.