In a cavernous white chamber aboard the Starship Avalon, we hover above a glass-domed sleeping pod flooded with golden light; a fog clears to reveal the face of Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). The only other face within this collective of 5,000 souls that Passengers lets us see is that of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), which is fitting: All this film needed to do was convince us that the heat between Lawrence and Pratt is powerful enough to propel us through two hours in their company, and almost no one else’s.
You had one job, Passengers.
Whatever Passengers is “about,” at its heart it’s about watching two extremely beautiful and charismatic stars make eyes at each other. But the film, written by Jon Spaihts and directed by Morten Tyldum, squashes both actors’ personalities under a mountain of clichés and a truly disturbing message. As an argument for human intimacy over machine-induced isolation, Passengers is an utter failure.
Jim and Aurora have signed up to spend 120 years in “suspended evolution,” by which time the Avalon will have reached its destination: The planet Homestead II, one of several colonies that “offer an alternative” to Earth, which has become a vague dystopia full of onyx-black high-rises and robots that have rendered mechanical engineers like Jim obsolete. Plot descriptions floating around the internet prior to the film’s release implied that both Jim and Aurora’s pods open prematurely as a result of a mechanical error, which would’ve been a silly enough concept — that the two people out of 5,000 who wake up early just happen to be the gorgeous and charming Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Ah, the magic of the movies.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, Jim’s pod inexplicably opens and he wakes up. Following the instructions of a friendly hologram, he collects his luggage, gets dressed, and goes to meet the fellow passengers in his “learning group.” But he’s the only one there. Aside from a friendly android bartender named Arthur, played by Michael Sheen, Jim is the only person awake on the entire ship — which is still 90 years away from its destination.
All Jim is left to communicate with are machines, a familiar brand of frustration. “Why am I alone?” Jim asks the disembodied woman’s voice conducting his orientation. “We’re all in this together,” she cheerfully replies. He finds a machine that lets him send a message back to Earth, which informs him a reply will be forthcoming in 55 years: “We apologize for the delay. That will be 6,012 dollars.”
First, Jim tries to fix his broken pod using every tool he can find on the ship. Then he gives up and breaks bad, taking over a swanky first-class suite and enjoying luxury amenities like sushi, a robot-enhanced version of Dance Dance Revolution, and a swimming pool with a spectacular view of the stars. He grows his beard long, a castaway in space. He starts to fall apart. Before suiting up for a recreational spacewalk, he laces his fingers through the gloved hand of an empty spacesuit.
It’s when he’s at his lowest point that Jim first spies Aurora, his sleeping beauty. He looks up her profile on the ship’s database and falls in love with it. He laughs at her dumb jokes; he tells Arthur about her. “You find the perfect woman, right in front of you, yet she’s completely out of reach.”
Not completely. Jim’s a mechanic; he knows his way around a manual. After a period of deliberation just long enough to drive home his level of desperation, he springs her out, telling her they both awoke because of a mechanical failure. It’s a tidy message, if not exactly the one Passengers intends to send home: Man is bored, so man ruins woman’s life.
If you’ve seen a movie before, you know what’s coming. Aurora will learn the truth, and, eventually, she’ll also learn to love her captor. This story is as old as the movies, turning up everywhere from rom-coms (Overboard, Excess Baggage) to screwball comedies (The Cannonball Run, Sleeper) to Hitchcock thrillers (Saboteur).
Visually, Passengers is a mash-up of references so obvious, they scrub the film of any potential for aesthetic awe. The bar where Sheen’s Arthur lives is a spitting image of the creepy ghost bar from The Shining; the pods housing the slumbering passengers look just like the sleeping chambers in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien; the image of Jim, at first alone and then with Aurora, heading out into the black void in a spacesuit tethered to the ship brings to mind Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s space tango in Gravity. The ship’s interior is so blandly unimaginative, it’s as if the production designers took their inspiration from a Pinterest board of luxury shopping malls.
But the wasted talent is more disappointing than both the film’s banalities and its retrograde storyline. Jim’s early raffish energy cools once Aurora is awake, and they become simply Man and Woman. He has paid the basic fare, subsidized by the company, which will collect a percentage of his wages for the rest of his life on the colony; she’s paid the “gold” fare, which entitles her to perks like better food and lodging. He’s practical, solid, good with his hands, from the sensible city of Denver; she’s a romantic, a writer from New York whose father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. It’s not long before we see repeated shots of Aurora floating in the pool in a white mesh bathing suit. When Jim describes his dream of building a house in the new world, she goes moon-eyed.
In the end, Shannon’s Arthur — a legless android who shimmies back and forth behind a bar on a mechanical track — has more personality than Aurora and Jim combined. As the film wore on, a part of me anticipated a Westworld-style twist, in which we’d discover that Aurora and Jim were robots all along.
“Do you trust me?” Jim asks as he leads Aurora out onto the ship’s deck for her inaugural spacewalk. Aurora, girl, the answer should always be, “No.” Jim takes her hand and leads her into the dazzling black night, and she rewards him with sex. This is before she finds out the truth, of course. But it’s only a matter of time before she accepts her fate and gives up her dream of a new world to eat sushi in space with Jim. What choice does she have? He’s all she’s got. As Passengers so plainly affirms, man’s god may be technology, but woman’s god is man.