Marketed as a combination of Titanic and Gravity from the get-go, Passengers, written by Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange) and directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) has made quite a noise in the press in the past few months, sparkling the interest of the audience and critics alike. And coupled with the cast’s charming and hilarious world tour – well, it stirred up quite an anticipation.
But don’t let the shiny premise and the promise of a space romance fool you. What the trailers fail to convey is a much darker tone that has so very little to do with the promised romcom. Rom you will see plenty, but com? That’s debatable.
The story is set on the high-tech commercial spaceship called Avalon designed to deliver 5,000 passengers to a far-away planet. On their 120-year long journey, the ship’s precious cargo is put in suspended animation to ensure their safe delivery to their final destination not aged a day. Thirty years into it, however, a collision with a meteor results in the damage to one of the sleeping pods. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up. A mechanical engineer and an overall savvy guy, he is unfortunately unable to fix the pod and go back to sleep, doomed to roam the giant ship with its rich restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters, having only android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen), for a company.
Jim spends the next year or so entertaining himself to the best of his ability, playing video games and basketball, and wandering around the cavernous ship, probably dreaming of all the food that is meant for Gold Class passengers only that he has no access to (I know I would). After a while, though, it finally hits him that he will live and die in space.
And this is when he finds Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) – please don’t miss the Sleeping Beauty reference here. Still asleep in her very functional pod, she looks pretty through a small window in the lid. Jim, starved for human interaction and taken by her beauty, can’t help himself. He pulls up her electronic profile, finds out that she’s a writer, and convinces himself he’s in love with her based on reading a few of her pieces. Every girl’s dream right there, honestly.
This is where this charming story takes turn for the worse. Naturally, Jim needs to wake Aurora up. Subsequently, he allows her to believe it was the ship’s malfunction that awoke her as well, conveniently omitting his own involvement. The rest is not hard to guess – a brief romance and a date in outer space lead to a more intimate relationship between the two, and Aurora is probably pretty stoked about Jim being basically the ‘magazine cover’ handsome. (Again, I know I would be.)
It wasn’t the what that ultimately ruined the film, though, but the how – how they approached this rather tricky story line that could have been played out in several different ways, how they executed it, and how they chose to end it. You watch Passengers and you know it was written and directed by men. The whole story is shown primarily from Jim’s perspective, and even Aurora’s rage when she finds out about his lies looks like an unnecessary overreaction, aimed at an innocent man whose only crime was baring his heart and soul to her [sarcasm font]. Because you know what happens next? Next they pretty much forget it happened. The ship’s systems continue to fail, and our heroes are fighting for their lives, the conflict between them no longer relevant because now we fear the ship might fall apart.
Despite the spectacular visuals, the film’s plot holes are outrages, to put it mildly. We’re led to believe that a ship on a 120-year journey has no other staff but one android programmed to serve drinks. That something as common in space as a meteor could damage a pod deep inside it so badly it couldn’t be fixed. (That they didn’t have a spare pod or two for this kind of emergency? Come on!) Not a single crew member to take care of some basic maintenance, too? They could’ve taken shifts, they could have had more robots around – take your pick.
The setting is entirely breathtaking, I’ll give them that much, Avalon looks like a dream, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t mind being stuck there alone for a year or two, just exploring it (not for the rest of my life, though). And with the right approach, it could have been a terrific movie.
However, the one thing that kept running through my mind as I watched Passengers was: These two are so lucky they are what they are. White and conventionally attractive. Because imagine if they weren’t. Imagine stunning Aurora being woken up by a man who is a foot shorter than her and has no personality whatsoever, all because she looked pretty to him. The audience wouldn’t be all Awww! in that case. The audience would be horrified and feel sorry for her. take away the cute factor, and the story would be so much creepier than it already is. Or, alternatively, imagine Jim wake up a girl he’s fallen for based on her profile only to find out she wasn’t into men. (I would actually watch that!)
There was, undeniably, a much deeper message that the film tried to convey, but failed to do it on a rather spectacular level. I’m talking about a serious case of moral ambiguity the whole story is based on, and even though I can hear most of you think that you would never ruin someone’s life like this, dooming them to spend the rest of their days stuck in the middle of nowhere, tending to the ship’s breaks and with no hope for the future, I hope with all my heart we won’t have to make that choice. Do I feel for Jim? Yes. That was some seriously bad luck that drove him to what he did. Something he didn’t ask for. Do I see the situation from Aurora’s point of view, though? Hell, yes! She did not deserve the life another person chose for her, either.
Which brings me to the ending that could have fixed it all but didn’t.
In fact, the ending was perhaps the most depressing thing about Passengers. After a near-death experience or two, Jim and Aurora seemingly patch up their broken relationship, and he manages to fix her pod, offering her to put her back to sleep so she could follow her dream, get to the far-away planet, write her book, win a Pulitzer (or whatever), and she chooses what? She chooses to stay awake and spend the rest of her life with a man who tricked her and lied to her, basically doing nothing but swimming in that shiny pool and wearing pretty clothes to the empty bar. (I wonder now if they’re at risk of running out of food on a ship that wasn’t meant to feed anyone for an extended period of time.) Stockholm Syndrome, anyone?
There was a lot of good material to work with, but in the end, Passengers was full of missed opportunities and wasted potential. It took made charming and talented cast flat and one-dimensional, and coming from the director of The Imitation Game, it was particularly disappointing. He took an interesting character of Jim Preston and turned him into a self-absorbed and man-child who sentenced a girl to death in space because he wanted to have sex with her. He took a tragic Aurora Lane whose life had been destroyed by a bored man-child and turned her into a plot device for him, and let’s be real – there is no excuse to still treat women that way, whatever the story. He managed to make me despise Jim (even though I adore Chris Pratt and am willing t overlook just about anything when he is involved) and root for Aurora (even though Lawrence is my least favourite person in the world), and that alone was more than a little unsettling.
Avalon might not have sunk, but Passengers definitely did.