“I bet you think you know this story. You don’t, the real one’s much more gory”. When I walked out of the press screening of Passengers, this line from Roald Dahl popped into my head. And although it seems a bit absurd, it definitely describes how I feel about the sci-fi romance action adventure film. There are hidden layers (though, not necessarily gory ones) that you’re probably not expecting. Or, should I say described? Because, the more I thought about it, the more my feelings about the movie changed. But we’ll get to that later, let’s go back to the beginning first.
Our story starts, as you know from the trailers, on board the Avalon – a futuristic deep-space cruise-liner/passenger ship. Its destination: Homestead II, a colony planet 120 years’ travel away from Earth. The passengers and crew of the Avalon are in hibernation while the ship autopilots its way through space. But something goes drastically wrong, and a malfunction causes the ship to start breaking down. One of the side effects of this is that some of our titular passengers get woken up too soon. 90 years too soon to be exact.
And while Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) are trying to adjust to the fact that they might have to live out the rest of their natural lives as the only ones awake, they uncover far more extensive damage than initially thought. Suddenly, 90 years doesn’t seem so bad in comparison to the ship falling apart around them.
Both characters run the same textbook gamut of emotion after waking up. Starting obviously with denial about their situation, then hopping between anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (not necessarily in that order). As the (excuse the pun) down-to-earth, hands-on mechanical engineer Jim Preston, Pratt does an excellent job with his emotional range. The grief and guilt he carries is etched on every line of his face, and expressed in every tiny move he makes.
Lawrence’s Aurora Lane, however, barely experiences them as a flicker of emotion, a furrowed eyebrow here or some perfectly shed tears there. Her character might just be exceptionally stoic, but I didn’t get much from Lawrence’s performance. She is stony-faced throughout most of the movie, and considering the depths that Pratt plumbed, I think we could have gotten more out of the apathetic Aurora.
The only other character we see on board the Avalon is Michael Sheen’s Arthur, the robot bartender who serves as Jim’s sounding board and advisor. It’s pretty obvious that the only thing Arthur serves, besides alcohol, is exposition. Despite only being required to ensure that some of the narrative is spoken aloud for the benefit of the audience, Sheen does a great job with the character, balancing his empathetic demeanour with the right amount of robotic affectation.
With only three characters to bring the story to life, the actors did have their work cut out for them. The real star of the movie though, for me at least, were the special effects. The ship is brought to life in a way that seems completely plausible. I’m sure people who are far more into space travel will pick up on innumerable inaccuracies, but for a layman like myself, the entire environment is so realistic, you feel like you’re also on board the Avalon.
As the ship starts to break down, and the small failures start to mount up and become bigger issues, so the tension of the film is ramped up. The urgency and realism with which the breakdowns happen are highly tense, giving us some of the best moments of the film. In one scene, the ship’s gravity fails while Aurora is in the swimming pool, leading to a truly heart-pounding sequence as she is surrounded by water she can’t escape from.
While the second act kind of drags as Jim and Aurora’s romance blossoms, the tension that is steadily and effectively increased in the movie’s third act allows it to truly shine as an action film. It hits a furiously fast-paced stride that left me on the edge of my seat for most of the remaining run-time.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, I walked out of the movie thinking this was completely unlike what I expected. There’s a “twist” that happens fairly early on that reveals the real story, the one that wasn’t even hinted at in the trailers. I was reeling in shock for a fair amount of the movie from this revelation, my jaw hit the floor and stayed there for a long time. My initial, gut reaction was one of “holy s@#!” and I walked out of the cinema thinking that this may be one of the greatest science fiction movies I’ve seen.
Unfortunately, my brain kicked back in once the adrenaline had subsided and the longer I thought about it, the more flaws I found. There’s a fair amount I can’t nit-pick in this review as it would reveal too much about the aforementioned twist. One thing I can nit-pick though, is the story itself. Big reveal aside, at the end of the day it’s actually fairly generic, and that one jaw-dropping moment made me forget about that until I thought back on it further.
Passengers may have started out with an epic idea and an incredibly lofty premise, but it quickly lost itself trying to be both a full blooded romance movie and a hearty space adventure film. Often, these two goals were at odds with each other, leading to some weird tone shifts. While the love story didn’t feel shoe-horned in, after all it’s logical that the only two people awake on a ship would start to develop feelings for one another, there’s something about it that left me feeling rather cold. Again, can’t say much because spoilers, but what was intended to give the movie some emotional depth maybe went too far.
Click here to read MAJOR SPOILERS about the big twist
Click here to read MAJOR SPOILERS about the big twist
It’s revealed fairly early on that Jim is the only one that wakes up when the ship malfunctions. He spends a long time coming to terms with his fate, and grows more and more lonely. He starts looking into other passengers in the ship’s manifest, and comes across Aurora. He starts to fall in love with this “Sleeping Beauty” by watching interviews with her and reading the books she has written, and after wrestling with the decision, he eventually decides to wake her up as well. In doing so, he condemns her to the same fate. The movie definitely doesn’t play it off like he was in the right, and he carries some hefty guilt around about the desperate decision he made. It haunts him through most of the movie. But, the fact that he chose her, woke her up and basically forced her to be his companion is a creepy twist which puts a serious damper on the authenticity of the love story.
I think that Passengers is going to be one of those movies that you need yourself to make up your own mind. Intellectually, I have my issues with it (contained in the spoiler tag above), but I was still fairly engaged. It has its exciting moments, its heart-warming moments, and a few head-scratching “they only did that to advance the plot” moments. While it may end up being rather run-of-the-mill, it was still one hell of a ride.