The 2016 holiday season has been somewhat tumultuous when it comes to misleading advertising from film trailers. Passengers falls into that camp, although not as egregiously as the recent Collateral Beauty whose trailer’s advertised plot, tone, and fantasy were nothing more than holiday wrapping masking a much drearier present. Passengers‘ trailer suggests a far different mystery; that is, the “mystery” of why two passengers on a 120 year voyage to Homestead II, a new frontier of Earth colonization, suddenly find themselves prematurely woken up from hibernation 90 years early. With no hope of putting themselves back to sleep, the two begin to accept their fates and fall in love but not without discovering a sinister solution to said mystery – one that hints they were specifically selected for whatever may come to pass.
What actually plays out in the film, however, is a far more interesting quandary that is unfortunately wasted by cliche tropes, situations, and overall absurdity. With mild spoilers of the first act in mind, Passengers focuses on an engineer (Chris Pratt) who, due to a ship malfunction, discovers that he has awoken early on what is essentially a space cruise ship. After spending a year alone and slowly driven to the point of suicide (while also, amusingly, lacking a “gold membership” barring him from many of the ship’s premium offerings), he takes notice of one of the ship’s 5,000 hibernating passengers – a writer (Jennifer Lawrence) with an ambition to document a life of adventure. As he falls in love through her video blogs and writing, he finds himself at an impasse: an inevitable, lonely demise or waking up what could be the love of his life, also dooming her in the process. And if he goes through with it, does he tell her?
It’s a fascinating, somber premise that is unfortunately downplayed by long stretches of romantic space fantasy, reaching its zenith with a space walk that I swear must have been directly inspired by Disney‘s Aladdin (right down to the “trust me” line, hand offer, flight, and climactic first kiss). Pratt and Lawrence suddenly bursting into song would not have been a large surprise at this point in the picture.
What follows is an overplayed liar-revealed, boy gets/loses girl template that relies entirely on the magnetic power of its cast to hold together. Pratt and Lawrence are wonderful together and the direness of their situation hits hard the few times its allowed to germinate. Beyond that, Passengers has little to offer with the exception of a couple visually arresting set pieces such as a zero-gravity swimming accident and…um…hmm…do a few flashes of bare skin reckon as visually arresting?
What’s worse, the “serious” science fiction presented in Passengers is about as acquainted with modern scientific or biological understanding as Chris Pratt’s other (far better) space adventure, the comic book fantasy Guardians of the Galaxy. From characters surviving ludicrous circumstances that should have so thoroughly decimated their physical bodies it would be wonder if their very souls survived to illogical nonexistent fail safes that are lacking solely for the convenience of the plot, the thin, fragile line that represents suspension of disbelief is snapped early on with no hope of recovery (or parole).
Despite its high production values and star power, Passengers proves to be a disappointing trip. Although it’s far removed from the asinine gutter rummage populated by many of 2016’s big-budget efforts, Passengers is perhaps more frustrating because it had quite a bit of potential; instead, it throws away a compelling, ethically challenging question for a by-the-numbers answer, invariably ducking aside from what makes the best science fiction as enduring.