By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Despite a troubled, nine year history that saw its 2007 Blacklist screenplay move from studio to studio, with a multitude of actors (Keanu Reeves, Rachel McAdams, Reese Witherspoon, Emily Blunt) and directors (Marc Forster, Gabriele Muccino, Brian Kirk) attached to the project at various stages, Passengers finally achieves cinematic fruition, backed with big money and headlined by two popular stars. Unfortunately the wait and financial outlay wasn’t worth it, with the finished product failing on just about every level.
Set some time in the future, we see the luxury spaceship Starship Avalon methodically moving through space, quietly working its way towards the distant destination of Homestead Colony. Inside are just over 5,200 passengers, all ready to leave Earth and venture towards a new world that promises utopia. Due to the extreme distance, the journey will take 120 years to complete, so passengers and crew are currently in suspended animation, each housed in a separate cryogenic pod.
A particularly brutal asteroid storm causes the ship’s internal computer systems to momentarily shut down, but during the reboot, one pod is inadvertently opened. The occupant, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), slowly awakens, thinking that they are about to arrive at their new home. Preston begins to wonder what is going on when he realises he is the only person that has been released from his pod. Questioning the ship’s A.I.-controlled central computer, the bemused passenger is told in no uncertain manner that there is still 90 years to go before they reach Homestead Colony.
With his pod inoperative, Preston is faced with the prospect of dying alone in space. Investigating his environment, Preston discovers an expansive bar that looks like it has been directly transported from the Overlook Hotel in The Shining to the Starship Avalon. But instead of encountering a hauntingly polite Philip Stone, Preston meets Arthur (Michael Sheen), a cyborg bartender that provides a majority of the film’s comic relief.
After a year of loneliness, and suffering the symptoms of cabin fever (we can tell, because he has a beard), Preston makes the morally ambiguous decision to open someone’s pod, so he can once more enjoy human companionship. Going through the passenger logs, Preston quickly attaches himself to Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), finding her videos fascinating and charming.
Opening the pod, Preston sees Aurora go through the same emotional distress he did once he was aware of the situation, and in the empty confines of the ship, the two start to develop a deep romantic connection. Preston has not told Aurora how her pod was opened, but it is only a matter of time before the truth will be uncovered.
Passengers is an odd mixture of elements that never once comes together as a whole. Part romance, part psychological study, and part sci-fi saga, this should be far more intriguing and absorbing than what it ends up being. The romance lacks any kind of spark and passion, the treatment of Preston’s state of mind is laughably under-developed, and the science fiction is too often derivative and familiar. Other, better sci-fi films come to mind throughout, in particularly Pandorum, Silent Running (no-one projects galactic insanity like Bruce Dern), Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010, Cargo, The Fifth Element, and Total Recall.
There seems to be a deliberate attempt to deflect audience involvement from its provocative central concept, glossing over Preston’s descent into semi-madness, and especially his decision to assign another person to a similar fate. But rather than intelligently explore how a total lack of human interaction can effect someone over a prolonged period of time, and the way in which it can distort their thought process in regards to those around them, the film-makers instead settle for adorable quirkiness and shallow, fashion magazine-style aesthetics. The Shining-inspired bar deceptively promises a cinematically referential exploration of dehumanisation, and as the film progresses one wishes Stanley Kubrick was still around to oversee this large-scale production.
Apparently Jon Spaihts’ script went through numerous changes over its lengthy evolution from page to screen, and this must be the case, as one wonders how this vacuous concoction could possibly end up on the much-lauded Blacklist (The Accountant is another puzzling example). Spaihts also encountered tampering on his screenplays for Prometheus and The Darkest Hour, so this guy is certainly going through a run of bad luck.
Tyldum, who helmed the Norwegian hit Headhunters and the Oscar-winning but incredibly over-rated WWII drama The Imitation Game, is totally lost at sea here. His inability to combine all the elements into a satisfactory whole is evident throughout, but he may have been hampered by all the rewrites and reported reshoots. Everything is shot and presented like a glamorous teen publication, blanketed in a glimmering sheen that buries all the darker themes inherent in the material. The toothless atmosphere is heightened by the cutesy interplay between Arthur and his two human customers.
Lawrence and Pratt, both charismatic performers, share zero chemistry, altogether thwarted by the superficial nature of their characters, which are riddled with clichés. Academy Award winner Lawrence, who has impressed in a variety of films such as Winter’s Bone, The Silver Linings Playbook, and Joy, strangely misses the mark here (even considering the restrictive material), and delivers her first grating performance.
Michael Sheen, who supplied chameleon-like, award-calibre turns in films such as The Queen, The Damned United, and Frost/Nixon, is professional in a role that requires little of this actor’s notable skills. Think of Arthur as a cross between C-3PO from Star Wars and Hymie from Get Smart. Laurence Fishburne, as a crew member who is also prematurely awakened from hypersleep, is introduced late in proceedings to do nothing more than get Jim and Aurora into restricted areas, and read out relevant information the ship’s computer could have executed.
The stories of extensive reshoots do attain some credence, as the final third of this silly, artificial story totally collapses, with a finale that is utterly ridiculous and illogical. It must also explain why seasoned actor Andy Garcia has barely thirty seconds of screen time, with no dialogue whatsoever.
The film is technically accomplished, with sleek work from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence, Brokeback Mountain), production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception, Steve Jobs), composer Thomas Newman (Spectre, Wall-E, Saving Mr. Banks), and the sizeable visual effects team.
Like the ship itself, Passengers has taken a long time to reach its destination, enduring a damaging journey that has deprived the source material of all its substance and worth. What we end up with is the two-hour movie equivalent of a pulpy, overly glossy soap opera.
Aurora Lane: We boarded the Avalon with the destination a hundred and twenty years hibernation means you wake up in a new century, on a new planet, but a year ago everything changed.
[we see Jim wake up from his hibernation]
Jim Preston: Hello? Anybody here?