THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Passengers takes place entirely on a spacecraft that is carrying thousands of people to a distant planet they are scheduled to colonize. They've all been put into hibernation pods for the 120-year trip. After a malfunction, two of those on board, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), are awakened. The ship isn't scheduled to land for another ninety years, meaning that they are stranded and alone, save for the robotic bartender (Michael Sheen) who's perpetually polishing a glass.
Let's address the proverbial elephant in the room up front, in terms that are as non-spoilery as possible: Passengers is a movie that's going to make some people very angry. At the heart of the film lies a choice made by one character that is, at best, morally dubious. That choice is resolved through some fairly routine big-budget action scenes. There will be those who say the implications of this choice are not sufficiently explored. Others may object to something that happens after the choice is made but before it is revealed. And then there will be those of us who applaud the fact that Passengers, for whatever flaws it has, tries to do something ambitious in the first place. Yes, the film could ultimately go darker and deeper than it does, but this is a big budget sci-fi picture with two massive stars. Even if it takes a slightly easy way out, there is still meaning in the story's arc.
Moreover, the story is fundamentally about that character's choice, the intense emotions it causes, and how those emotions are dealt with. The reason why this individual makes the choice is understandable, even if some deem it indefensible. Science-fiction inherently should be a little challenging. Passengers deserves credit for going where it does. Love it or hate it, viewers will be talking about the dilemma afterward.
The theme of the film is loneliness. Jim and Aurora realize that, having awakened too early, they are destined to live alone in that ship for the rest of their lives. A romantic affair begins. Do they really love each other, or are they simply aware that there are literally no other relationship options for them ever again? Even – and especially – in its more controversial moments, Passengers explores the desperation of knowing that the connection to other humans has been cut tragically short for these characters. Desperation breeds desperate acts. We can judge all we want. The fact is that what happens here is probably the very thing that would happen in real life, which is why it's so enticingly uncomfortable.
Pratt and Lawrence strike up decent chemistry together, particularly during some of the lighter moments. (There are quite a few funny bits involving how they occupy their time on the massive spaceship.) Both also do a good job of showing how their characters' viewpoints change as the story moves forward. Jim has something to prove. Aurora has to decide what her feelings for him really are, and whether she can accept him for his weaknesses.
The third act of Passengers relies on some fairly standard action sequences. While effectively staged, they occasionally border on silliness. Even so, the central dramatic idea comes through. There are certain actions in life that you can't take back, no matter how much you want to. All you can do is try to rectify things as best you can, or attempt to find a way to make them as right as can be. The set pieces generally provide an avenue for one of the characters to do just that.
Written by Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange) and directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), Passengers may not ever dive as deeply into its central conundrum as it could have, because of the need to deliver the kind of rousing third-act excitement audiences expect from a major studio sci-fi adventure. Imperfect though it may be, the movie explores a What would you do? moral issue with enough inquisitiveness and entertainment value to make for a reasonably engaging two hours.
( out of four)
Passengers is rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity and action/peril. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
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