Beautiful and mediocre, Passengers starts, at least, with a fantastic concept: Onboard the Avalon—a spaceship traveling at half the speed of light and carrying thousands of people away from an overpopulated Earth and toward a pristine new planet—one of the sleeping pods slides open. Jim (Chris Pratt) wakes up, shakes off his hypersleep haze, and realizes the sprawling, elegant ship—from its multi-tiered concourse, to its stunning swimming pool, to its bar hosted by Arthur (Michael Sheen), the most charming robot bartender in the galaxy—is all his. It’s all his because Jim’s stupid sleeping pod slid open 90 years too early. It’s all his because it’ll be 90 years before the Avalon reaches its destination. And it’s all his because it’ll be 90 years before anyone else wakes up.
Jim tries to make a go of it. Abandoning his cubby hole of a sleeping compartment, he moves into one of the Avalon’s luxury suites. He does his best to drink Arthur’s entire supply of whiskey. He goes for spacewalks, tied to the Avalon by the thinnest of tethers. He tries to fix his hypersleep pod, and he fails. He tries to get onto the bridge to figure out what went wrong, and he fails. He tries to make peace with the fact he’s going to die alone, and he fails. He lasts a year before he decides to wake someone else up.
Naturally, he picks Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a rich writer who, as far as Jim can tell, seems super smart and very likeable, and also, you know, very pretty. Once Aurora wakes up—as confused as disoriented as Jim was, and just as horrified to find the ship all but lifeless—Jim lies: Whoa, weird! Your sleeping pod must’ve malfunctioned too! So weird. GUESS WE’LL JUST HAVE TO GET SPACE MARRIED.
Had this story been told from Aurora’s point of view, Passengers could’ve dug into its creepy subtext: Jim’s crime not only robs Aurora of her consent and agency, but dooms her to live the rest of her life imprisoned with a stranger. Sure, Jim’s a nice guy, and he feels bad about what he did, but that’s not really the point: Aurora just got woken up by a sad weirdo, and she’s surrounded by a deadly vacuum, and this is her life now.
That’s a great set-up for a Twilight Zone-style thriller—one that could dig into Passengers’ gender roles (hey Jim, maybe don’t feel entitled to radically change a lady’s life just because you’re lonely) and class issues (not for nothing is the pampered Aurora—who calls herself a journalist, but seems to have confused “journalism” with “journaling”—taking the super-expensive trip to another planet for funsies, while Jim, a mechanic, got a discounted ticket in exchange for his labor).
That’s interesting, relevant stuff—so naturally, Passengers buries it under a glaze of bland romance, which mostly consists of Pratt making puppy dog eyes at Lawrence whenever they go on “dates” (Arthur thinks they make a lovely couple), or head out for stunning spacewalks, or have pretty-people sex. Everything’s great, aside from it only being a matter of time until Aurora finds out Jim’s been lying, and also until the malfunctioning Avalon maybe explodes.
Passengers veers from comedy to tragedy, from romance to action movie, before ending on a note that feels too rushed and too chipper, even by Hollywood standards. One gets the sense Jon Spaihts’ script worked much better on the page, where the story’s cleverest elements had room to breathe—but alas, Passengers is directed by Morten Tyldum, who, just as he did with the 2014 bit of Oscar bait The Imitation Game, sucks the oxygen out of even the best premises. Meanwhile, as Thomas Newman’s overbearing score tells the audience how to feel every single second, Pratt and Lawrence start to look less like passengers and more like prisoners—trapped in a beautifully designed spaceship, trapped in a mostly crappy film.