Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence could very well be the ideal couple. Sure, they’re both whiter than Wonder Bread, but they’re also both gorgeous and have great bodies, with great personalities and senses of humor to match. Lawrence can act circles around Pratt, but he’s so darn affable you just don’t care. They’ve both got loads of that ineffable “it,” and their charisma is usually more than enough to carry a film. This time, though, their charm may have found its limit.
The problem arises about a third of the way through the film, after Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up from cryogenic sleep to find himself alone on the Avalon, a massive commercial space liner that’s equal parts resettlement program and pleasure cruise. An equipment malfunction has woken him up 90 years early, and he’s now doomed to live out the rest of his life surrounded by sushi bars and infinity pools, but not a single human companion. (The other 5,000 passengers on board will wake up at the tail end of the ship’s 120-year voyage to Earth colony Homestead-II.) The closest he’s got to a friend is android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), who perpetually wipes a glass in the gorgeous Art Deco bar where Jim sits, day in, day out, and narrates his growing despair, à la The Shining, in between goofball montages.
But Jim’s inevitable madness doesn’t inspire him to take an axe to his fellow passengers’ space pods. It fuels his obsession with the slumbering Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a successful, witty journalist hoping to become the first reporter to travel to a space colony and back. But Jim makes quick work of that goal—and indeed, Aurora’s whole life—when he deliberately wakes her up early so he has someone to talk to. He then proceeds to present an innocent face to his new friend/captive, and to charm/manipulate her into the sexual relationship he’s secretly been plotting for the two of them the whole time. He sees a pretty woman in a pod and decides to make her his, subsuming her lifetime of hopes and dreams (not to mention her bodily autonomy) to his own desire for companionship, and lies to her in order to fulfill that desire. But he’s a nice guy, and he felt conflicted about it before he did it, so it’s… understandable? Or at least forgivable? Apparently?
On the surface, everything is fine. The sleek, futuristic spaceship setting is fine (if a little cold), the acting is fine (or better than fine, in Lawrence’s case), the music is fine, the lighting is fine, the editing, the camerawork—all fine. But the couple’s disturbing meet-cute casts everything Jim says or does in a threatening light; a comment about “giving you space” comes off like stalking prey, and his plea for forgiveness over the ship’s PA when his secret is finally revealed plays more like obsessive surveillance than rom-com quirk. Not that director Morten Tyldum, recently of The Imitation Game, doesn’t try for quirk. He tries for a lot of things, careening wildly from earnest romance to feel-good comedy to hackneyed suspense, all the while leaving it up to the audience to suss out the moral complexity and existential terror underneath the glossy surface. (Indicative of this movie’s cluelessness about women in particular, at one point Lawrence declares that she can’t go for a romantic jaunt outside the ship wearing her date-night dress, so she goes commando under her spacesuit—but leaves her high heels on.) And every time the film starts to address the fact that this cushy existence is actually a death sentence, another plot point comes in to muddle the tone even further. Oh yeah, and did we mention it turns into a sci-fi spectacle at some point?
Giving Passengers the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible that that plot point, like the ending of this summer’s Lights Out, is simply a narrative contrivance gone horribly wrong. But given the extent to which it’s woven into the script—it even serves as a punchline in a couple of places—that seems unlikely. The more likely scenario is that the major creative players either didn’t realize that they were essentially making a feature-length ad for Stockholm syndrome, or that they didn’t really care. And with Tyldum so glibly dismissive of (or oblivious to) what on paper might have seemed like interesting moral questions, the script doesn’t matter that much anyway. What matters here is the film’s effect. And the effect of Passengers is to turn frothy sci-fi romance into an astonishingly retrograde statement on autonomy and consent, and to turn one of the most likable actors in Hollywood into a total fucking creep. A date movie, this is not.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Passengers’ Spoiler Space.