Movie trailers have always had carte blanche to be disingenuous. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was pitched as a Gone In Sixty Seconds-esque action caper, Martin McDonagh’s 2008 film In Bruges promised us an out-and-out action comedy and future Star Wars director Gareth Edwards’ first feature – the ultra-low budget, ultra low-key character piece Monsters – was pitched as an all out alien invasion thriller. Luckily in these cases the final product turned out to be so much more interesting than their respective promotional materials tried to flog us. In the case of Passengers, similar is true; the trailers advertised one thing, the film delivered something potentially more intriguing. Sadly however, a distinctly generic final act and some problematic sexual politics renders the whole thing a dud. So cynically careful was the trailer not to reveal a key early development, I find myself in a predicament not to reveal too much whilst conveying my key gripes with the film.
Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up out of hyper sleep dazed and confused. He is a passenger on the Starship Avalon, a spaceship carrying over 5000 people on a 120-year voyage to a distant colony planet. Initially ready for the new life he paid for on ‘Homestead II’, excitement turns to horror when he realises he is the only commuter to have had his alarm call. Everyone else is still deep in hyper sleep and the ship still has 90 years of its journey to go, essentially leaving Jim stranded in space and doomed to die alone before he ever reaches his destination. Confident in its strong premise and with man-of-the-moment Pratt to sell it, it’s these early Silent Running-meets-Moon scenes which work the most.
It’s from here, when the first major development takes place that the film manages to, bizarrely, show massive potential whilst simultaneously laying out the path to its own failure. Desperate for company and enamoured with a fellow (sleeping) passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), Jim grapples with the ultimate ethical quandary; Should he wake her up for company? Should he doom an innocent person to the same fate as him, just to service his own selfish drives? Imagine 10 Cloverfield Lane laying out all of John Goodman’s appalling history and traits for an hour before the film starts and then revolving around a meet-cute between him and Mary Elizabeth Winstead once she’s in the bunker. It’s not far off the leaps this expects of its audience for them to keep rooting for the central lovebirds.
What then, could have been dark subject matter, dripping in questions of morality, philosophy and sexual manipulation cops out pretty spectacularly. Preston does his moral pickle justice for a while, delaying his final choice, stewing on what his course of action should be and talking it over with his only companion; robotic bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). In other, braver hands we may have been treated to a completely different narrative once Lane enters the picture. Perhaps a creepy, psychological thriller in which, we the audience, watch two people fall for each other aware only one of them knows the truth? As events progress, maybe a macabre tale of a victim forced to live, confined with her stalker for eternity? These could have made for very effective viewing experiences. Unfortunately this is not that film. We’re talking about lovable rascal/studio favourite Chris Pratt and so it discards any complex ideas in its final hour and instead opts for a generic, space disaster finale not only rendering the end result trite and unambitious but sidestepping the more icky aspects of its protagonist’s motivations. Indeed, the film insultingly asks us to still root for Jim and his relationship with Aurora, never condemning and always rewarding his more repellent choices.
Pratt’s performance is perfectly decent. He’s proven several times that he’s a naturally likeable performer and he’s no different here, covering the gamut of emotions early on as Jim’s plight sinks in; Despair, denial, enjoyment and ultimately deep, dark depression. With Jurassic World and now this though, his agent may just need to start advising him against these questionable alpha-male roles. Lawrence, usually a keen eye for quality if her track-record is anything to go by, isn’t given much of a canvas to show off her talents. One central section aside, her character is reduced to a smitten school-girl, despite the object of her affections’ pretty loathsome actions. A mid-point cameo proves reliable but completely perfunctory, in keeping with the overall final product.
So then, we’re left with a wasted opportunity. The conceit itself is excellent and for an hour or so the possibilities seem endless. Had it just descended into anodyne disaster territory it would have been disappointing, but coupled with its spineless avoidance of what could have been some interesting, weighty themes, it’s unforgivable. John Spaihts’ script was apparently sitting on the famous ‘Hollywood Blacklist’ for ten years before being made. If only the second half had stayed there.