As a big-budget sci-fi drama featuring two of Hollywood’s hottest talents and an Oscar-nominated director, Passengers has all the ingredients of a surefire blockbuster. But while the marketing department at Sony Pictures would have audiences believe this is an intergalactic romance born of cosmic coincidence, there’s a much darker truth hiding just below the surface of the film’s sparkling veneer.
30 years into its journey to the colony world of Homestead II, the starship Avalon – laden with 238 crew members and 5000 passengers – encounters a colossal meteor storm that its shields cannot fully deflect. The ensuing damage knocks a few critical systems offline long enough for one passenger’s hibernation pod to malfunction, and Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) finds himself woken from his slumber, 90 years before the ship will arrive at its destination.
With a background in mechanical engineering, Jim’s immediate instinct is to locate any technical information about the pods and find a way to put himself back into hibernation. But his efforts prove fruitless, and the only possible help lies with the dormant crew members, sealed behind a door that Jim’s ID badge cannot open. The distress call he sends back to Earth will take 19 years to arrive, and a reply will take another 35 before it reaches the ship, leaving Jim to live out the remainder of his years in solitude aboard the Avalon, with a friendly robot bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) as his only companion.
I generally tend to avoid spoiling major plot revelations, but in the case of Passengers my impressions are inextricably linked to an event that occurs somewhere around the 25-minute mark, so I feel compelled to make an exception. If you’d like to remain as spoiler-free as possible, then I recommend that you stop reading at this point.
Finding solace in the bottom of a bottle and wandering around the ship in a haze of grief and depression, Jim encounters the sleeping body of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist from New York. Using the ship’s computer to research her background, Jim convinces himself that he’s in love, lamenting to Arthur that he’s finally found “the perfect woman” and that she’s out of reach. When he begins to consider the possibility of damaging Aurora’s pod in order to wake her up – even though it means she’ll be doomed to the same fate of dying before the colony is reached – Arthur tells Jim exactly what the audience is thinking: “you can’t do that.”
Despite being fully aware of the ramifications, Jim ultimately elects to ignore the advice of his mechanical companion, and soon Aurora is wandering around the ship and shaking off the after-effects of hibernation. Her initial horror at finding herself awake some 89 years too early is mitigated by the presence of Jim, who positions himself as a friend and confidant, rather than the architect of her plight. Jim promises Arthur that he’ll reveal the true nature of Aurora’s awakening, but as companionship slowly blossoms into something deeper, he can’t bring himself to come clean.
That Jim’s deception will eventually come to light shouldn’t really be a surprise, but the way Passengers handles the aftermath is arguably even more egregious, as Jim spends his time brooding and issuing apologies over the ship’s PA system. Attempting to cast such an irredeemable character in a sympathetic light is troubling enough, but the film also goes to great lengths to paint Aurora as unreasonable when she doesn’t immediately fall back into his arms, sending a clear-cut message that it’s okay for a man to rob a woman of her agency – not to mention her life – as long as he’s a “nice guy” who says that he’s sorry.
Amid the nauseating central conflict, Passengers provides a solid dose of sci-fi action during its third act, particularly during a thrilling sequence where the ship’s artificial gravity fails, or when the reactor that powers the ship threatens to overheat. But these moments feel grossly manipulative, serving as transparent attempts to endear us further to Jim, and distract from the reprehensible behavior he’s engaged in, as he gallantly puts himself in harm’s way to ensure Aurora’s safety.
Had Passengers been constructed around the idea of both characters being woken by mistake, then it could easily have been crafted into an enjoyable sci-fi romance – indeed, the performances are solid and director Morten Tyldum provides a tremendous amount of eye-candy in the Avalon’s design and the vast world just beyond its windows. But saddling our “hero” with an inexcusable act, and then spending the next hour trying to convince us that his choices were acceptable because he’s a great guy, just feels like a pretty terrible foundation.
An intergalactic romance predicated on a selfish, reprehensible act that the film wants us to believe is acceptable because our "hero" is a really great guy. Even Pratt's undeniable charm can't overcome the creep factor here.