Passengers is a movie sold as a sci-fi romance about two people doomed to spend the rest of their lives in deep space. But as critics have been quick to spoil ever since the review embargo broke, it is actually something a bit different and much riskier.
The most charitable way to describe it is as a kind of Rorschach/litmus test, to try and make audiences question the lengths they would go to and what actions they would excuse when faced with an eternity of isolation. If that was really the movie that is made, however, it surely would have turned out much differently.
In practice, however, it may actually make viewers question the lengths and excuses they would use to enjoy Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt on the big screen. That's something which should never be difficult in the slightest, but putting that in doubt is just one of the problems on this voyage.
An interstellar cruise liner is on a 120-year journey to a corporate owned new world, but a detour through an asteroid field somehow wakes up one of the 5,000 passengers 90 years early. Yet engineer Jim Preston can barely survive just one year all alone with an inescapable doom ahead, with only his growing beard and a robot bartender to keep him company. At his wits end, a glimpse at a female passenger/writer named Aurora in cryo sleep renews Jim's will to live, which ultimately makes him cross the line and wake her up/doom her to a life sentence on the ship himself. Of course, he doesn't mention that part of her awakening even as they get closer, but circumstances and a rapidly malfunctioning ship soon throws everything off balance.
On paper, Passengers is the kind of big studio film almost no one makes anymore. Not only is it based on a completely original premise instead of a comic book, novel, past movie or TV show, it actually kept the biggest part of its premise a secret from trailers until reviews came in. What's more, it is a premise where its central protagonist played by one of the biggest rising male stars around commits what amounts to a pretty unforgivable act.
For all those who complain about big budget films being derivative, cookie-cutter, by the numbers fare that relies more on CGI than human stars, Passengers should have been the ultimate proof otherwise. There are many possible versions of this tale that could have made it just the kind of tough, complex, challenging and thought provoking epic we don't often see from big budget blockbusters anymore.
Yet it makes it all the more baffling that director Morten Tyldum and writer Jon Spaihts chose the furthest possible route from such a take. In fact, for viewers who aren't straight white men, there's a chance it could be one of the most horrifying movies of the year, for reasons Tyldum and Spaihts either didn't intend or were too oblivious to recognize.
Before it gets that far, however, Passengers actually pays off some of its early promise. There are some humorously satirical touches in the corporate machinations of the ship, such as Jim being unable to find an actual human operator on the phone, being charged for a call that won't get a response for over 50 years, and not having the status to buy anything other than a generic breakfast or coffee. And for those who couldn't get enough of K-2SO in Rogue One, Michael Sheen gets his own chance to play a dry and witty robot, who is surely named Arthur after 2001 author and original HAL 9000 creator Arthur C. Clarke.
As the first act goes on, comparisons with The Martian and especially Cast Away are certainly warranted, especially when Pratt's beard grows to a Tom Hanks Cast Away level size. When Jim actually looks like he's about to dance with a spacesuit before putting it on, and when he then goes outside the ship in a stunning visual sequence, it more than sells the notion that he may be going mad.
But instead of this leading towards a darker and more disturbing tale of madness and isolation in space, it really is the first of many, many excuses used to justify destroying a woman's life.
In the long run, Passengers is perhaps the very first film that becomes worse once Jennifer Lawrence enters the picture, which is a blasphemous crime in of itself. Yet it wouldn't have mattered if Lawrence or any other actress was in that pod and woken up to a doomed life against her will, where she pretty much has to fall in love by default with the man who took her life from her even after the truth comes out. In the way Tyldum and Spaihts conceive of it, there is nothing for Lawrence or any other actress to salvage from that.
This is supposed to be a movie powered by two of the biggest rising stars of this decade falling in love in space. As such, it makes no sense why that couldn't be enough on its own without such a questionable foundation. Even when Lawrence and Pratt get chances to do anything of value together, it can't fully be enjoyed without blocking out the sinister subtext behind it all. When something like that undercuts one of the primary reasons this movie exists, it's pretty hard to come back from.
To be fair, Passengers and Jim do have some awareness that what they've done to Aurora is wrong, and aren't utterly oblivious to it. In fact, if they'd spent less time trying to construct an epic romance around it anyway, and more time actually wrestling with the ethics and messages behind it all, this could have well been justified as a daring and different kind of story. But of all the potentially gripping and gutsy ways to tell a story like this, Passengers settles for one with no guts at all.
At its most misguided, this is a horror movie that doesn't even know it is a horror movie, especially when Jim gives a big speech to justify himself over the PA that Aurora can't escape from, when it actually has sad/romantic music from Thomas Newman playing over it, and when it immediately cuts from Aurora's breakdown to one of many shots that ogle Lawrence in a pool.
After that, Passengers actually goes into thriller mode in its third act, with Laurence Fishburne and races against time to repair the ship and all. Yet the whole purpose of this isn’t for an action finale, but rather for what looks like the sole purpose of redeeming Jim and getting a romantic happy ending, regardless of the message it may send to people that aren't men.
Imagine if Brie Larson's Room got a prequel about how Larson's captor abducted her against his will, and then actually had them fall in love anyway, romanticized their captive relationship anyway, and ended with them happy together in captivity before showing the horrible aftermath in Room. Leaving aside how the actual sex in Passengers is consensual and there is no child involved, that otherwise really isn't a few degrees separate from what Passengers asks us to accept, normalize and spend two hours straight justifying.
One could compare it to Beauty and the Beast, since that is often criticized as a tale of Stockholm Syndrome disguised as true love, Disney musical style. However, Belle actually made the choice on her own to be the Beast's prisoner in order to save her father's life, which may not have been the freest choice but was still one she made of her own free will.
There's not even a glimmer of an illusion of choice in Passengers' Stockholm Syndrome like set up, right down to Aurora having to work with and eventually love Jim again primarily because the ship comes apart. But to put it in other Disney terms, the way Jim wakes Aurora up could be seen as a twisted kind of Sleeping Beauty like awakening, if the movie had the imagination to follow through on it.
Maybe Passengers is a victim of timing of sorts, since this really isn’t the best time for a movie to justify and ultimately reward crimes against women. In fact, this year has laid bare the consequences of a culture that bends over backwards to excuse and justify certain kinds of men for harmful actions against women, no matter what the cost to such victims or the messages it sends to society and women at large.
While Jim’s actions may not be harmful to that extreme extent, especially with how much Passengers bends over backwards to make him sympathetic even when it probably shouldn’t have, it is too much of a slippery slope to just brush aside. This is a time where anything close to that mindset needs to be rejected louder than ever before, and long past a time where Hollywood needs to be more mindful of the messages they send in such plotlines, whether it means to send them or not.
There is certainly no way Passengers would have played out with this kind of perspective if a woman had written and/or directed it, or if one of the better and more thoughtful sci-fi male writer/directors like Ex Machina’s Alex Garland was in charge, or if Aurora was the actual main character. In fact, Lawrence is so marginalized aside from her sexier moments, it is all the more puzzling why she went from playing Katniss Everdeen and all her David O. Russell characters to this, aside from her $20 million paycheck.
Lawrence and Pratt usually choose so much better with their characters, but Tyldum and Spaihts are still the ones who made them. Given that Tyldum sanitized Alan Turing’s story in The Imitation Game and still got Oscar nominated for it, perhaps it isn’t much of a surprise coming from him. Spaihts was far more imaginative working within the bounds of the Marvel formula in co-writing Doctor Strange just weeks ago, so he may have less of an excuse.
As much as Passengers is ideologically iffy at the bare minimum, maybe that doesn’t mean the movie’s greatest crime is using those ideas. It just used those ideas in close to the worst way, and probably had the wrong people carrying them out.
If Passengers was made by people who truly struggled with the morality and the more troubling messages of its premise, who dared to question the long held and toxic male fantasies that go into making such a premise, who carried them out for goals other than a generic mainstream love story and sci-fi CGI extravaganza, who dared to let Pratt test his range by actually going creepy and mad on purpose, and who actually bothered to turn Lawrence loose instead of using her plight as a mere plot device/obstacle to ‘true love’, then it probably could have justified even its more questionable ideas. Instead, the wrong people carried them out at probably the worst time to defend such actions in this way.
There is a sci-fi movie this fall that ultimately comes down to some very controversial decisions, that is fully aware and conscious of their complex and multi-layered aspects, that both convincingly defends them and yet fully acknowledges the more harmful consequences of them, that didn’t need so many mental gymnastics to defend itself, and actually has respect for a woman’s perspective, choice and point of view. But that movie is called Arrival, and gives both male and female characters and viewers more credit than Passengers can muster.
For the opening act, for the eventually rare times in which Passengers is actually self aware, and for what Pratt, Lawrence and Sheen are allowed to salvage, the movie really earns a score of 4.5, although it has to be knocked down to 4 on the official TMN.com scale.