Raleigh, N.C. — Passengers is not the best movie of the year, but it is so close to being one of the most entertaining. I mean so damn close! If not for a final scene that completely cops out on the movie’s overall theme of the desperation that isolation can drive a person to.
The theme may be a heavy one, but the execution involves enough light-hearted moments to keep the movie fun. I mean, even when he’s cast in a serious role, Passengers star Chris Pratt will make you smile. Maybe that’s because he has no business being in dramas, but that’s a lesson either Hollywood hasn’t learned yet or is refusing to acknowledge.
Passengers opens on a seemingly empty space ship - the Avalon. It is on a more than 100 year voyage to a new world called Homestead II. On board, there are over 250 crew members and 5,000 passengers who have decided that Earth has become too crowded and too expensive, so they are starting life over somewhere else. Of course, they wouldn’t live to see their new home world naturally, so everyone is in an intense state of hibernation.
That is, until the ship flies through an asteroid field. Now, nevermind that in real life asteroid fields and belts are gigantic and each object is usually thousands of miles apart from the next one. The Avalon is getting pelted left and right.
We see the ship barreling towards a gigantic meteor. This is when we learn that despite being equipped to handle a more than 100 year flight in a way that doesn’t require any human attention, the Avalon actually contains less technology that a Roomba. The ship makes impact with the space rock. This causes multiple system failures which somehow only wake up one dude. Jim (Pratt) is alone on the ship for the better part of a day before he realizes that he is the only one awake and that he is still 90 years away from his final destination.
He spends the first few days trying to learn all he can about the ship. He tries desperately to get back into hibernation. When that is unsuccessful he tries to break into the protected sector of the ship where the crew is hibernating. When that is unsuccessful, he befriends a robotic bartender (Masters of Sex’s Michael Sheen) who tells him to make the most of his new situation.
Jim rigs doors to nicer suites to open for him. He experiences life-sized video games and goes for space walks. This is where we learn that the Avalon has a background soundtrack that is heavy on music from 2002. I don’t know what year Passengers is set in, but I think it’s safe to assume one of Sirius/XM’s oldies channels is one of the ship’s presets. Then, he stumbles upon Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence). She is still in her hibernation pod. Jim falls in love with her and starts going through the ship’s records to learn all he can about her.
By this point, Jim, who is a mechanic back on Earth, has learned how to open hibernation pods and wake up the people inside. He hasn’t done it yet, but now he’s in love. He has philosophical conversations with the robot bartender about the moral implications of stranding someone on a desert island with you…or is it dessert island? I never remember which is the lifeless wasteland and which is the decadent treat. Obviously, stranding someone on an island made of sweet indulgences isn’t something you need to apologize for.
Jim wakes Aurora up. He doesn’t tell her. He just lets her have some space until he decides “okay, time to see her naked” and then he kicks his courtship efforts into overdrive. And see her naked he does! There’s actually a really funny scene the first time the two are in the throws of passion where Aurora takes off her clothes and climbs into Jim’s bed. We immediately cut to a shot of the Avalon, which has a long, straight ramrod on the front, going through a nebula.
That is some next level, USA Up All Night euphemistic imagery there.
The two spend a year together having sex on every surface in the ship. Really, this movie should be called Jennifer Lawrence’s Side Boobs in Space, but then that would ruin most of the plot. The robot bartender become their best friend. That is until the robot bartender tells Aurora that Jim woke her up on purpose. You know? For the space porkin’.
So now our heroes hate each other. Aurora because Jim is the space equivalent of a murder/rapist and Jim because Aurora won’t be cool. Systems periodically continue to fail, waking up crew member Gus (Lawrence Fishburn). That’s when we discover just how dire the situation on the Avalon is.
Okay, no more recap.
Like I said earlier, until this point and even a little bit beyond, this is a really fun movie. The story hooked me. The cast is fun. There’s a perfect balance of drama and comedy.
It’s that final act though man, that undoes so much of what is good about the movie. It may not ruin things for you, and that’s fine. I’m just not sure that this is the right time of year for something like this. When you have one Oscar contender after another hitting theaters alongside something like Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, something like Passengers is bound to get lost in the shuffle.
Visually, the movie fluctuates between interesting and “Come on, this thing cost $110,000,000 to make and you can’t make space look better than an early 90s episode of Red Dwarf?" (Note for nerds excited by that reference: the show was horrible). I mean, surely you’ve seen the trailer that features a gravity failure that traps Jennifer Lawrence in a bubble of water that has now floated out of the pool it’s supposed to be in. It’s such a cool visual!
Then, there is that life sized video game I mentioned earlier. Either the shipmakers are big on nostalgia (as I guess the background music would suggest) or the filmmakers didn’t feel like trying to replicate images that are like PS4-caliber were necessary. Sure this takes place in 2040-something, but you know what, video game technology stopped at the Sega Saturn.
Passengers is mindless entertainment, and that is a good thing. I liked the movie. As I was writing that recap I realized that I was fully engaged for more than 75 percent of the film. If you go in though knowing that the end is a let down, I think it may be possible to live in the moment of the movie and enjoy each scene individually. At the very least you’ll be able to appreciate all of the Jennifer Lawrence nudity cloaked in strategically placed shadows and sheets.
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.