This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 1st January 2017
3 stars, Rated M, 116 mins
The set-up for Passengers is pretty great, and the startling setting and gorgeous rendering of space travel initially suggest this is going to be a worthy blockbuster.
The Starship Avalon is on a 120-year journey through space to Homestead II – a new colony to be inhabited by the ship’s 5000 civilians who are seeking a new life away from Earth. Viewers who have flown long-haul in ordinary aeroplanes will be wistful, since these travellers lie in induced hibernation for the duration, scheduled to awaken only at T minus four months in order to enjoy leisure activities such as you’d see on a 6-star cruise ship, and to prepare for their new, Utopian existence.
Unfortunately, something causes passenger Jim Preston (the popularly charismatic Chris Pratt) to wake too soon. Nine decades too soon. Facing a lonely life and certain death before the vessel reaches its destination, Jim’s future now turns on an ethical dilemma.
Passengers’ strong points include its aspirational, futuristic production design and the casting of Jennifer Lawrence against Pratt, which was surely predicted to be chemistry on tap. But better than these two put together is Michael Sheen as the cliché-spouting android bartender. And of course, the interstellar setting promises much, including Gravity-esque space walks and a terrific scene which aptly demonstrates the importance of actual gravity.
Sadly, despite these wonderful opportunities, the plot lets it down. The initially gripping “How could this happen?” is even tantalisingly dangled in the film’s tagline “There is a reason they woke up”. Well, yes there is – but it turns out it’s not something you can really build a film around. So screenwriter Jon Spaihts (who co-wrote the brilliant Doctor Strange and the disappointing Prometheus) relies heavily on Pratt and Lawrence’s romantic qualities instead. As a result, what could have been exciting like Total Recall or Sunshine (films that this one evokes) instead fails to even reach Titanic heights/depths (another movie alluded to in Passengers – Jim the engineer is a lower class of passenger than Lawrence’s Aurora, and his question “Do you trust me?” is a sure nod to the famous “I’m flying!” scene in the doomed boat drama).
Norwegian director Morten Tyldum made the multi-award nominated The Imitation Game and the terrific Scandi thriller Headhunters, so it was fair to assume he had the chops to handle a big-budget space adventure. Granted, purely as big-screen entertainment, Passengers does deliver some spectacle and engagement – but with a more developed conceit, it would have been great to see what a $110 million budget could really have bought.