You get the feeling that Passengers could have been a very different movie. A darker, bolder and perhaps more uncomfortable one, but it is not meant to be; instead, it settles for being not just predictable but casually misogynistic as well.
Much has been made about the movie’s screenplay by Jon Spaihts – in 2007, it landed on the Black List, Hollywood’s yearly round-up of best unproduced scripts.
Since then, it’s been rattling around the film industry with various big names attached to it, finally making it to the big screen this year with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as leads.
Watching the finished product, though, you might wonder what all the fuss was about. Or just how much had been altered during the script’s journey to film.
The premise is certainly full of possibilities. Jim Preston (Pratt) is one of 5,000 passengers hibernating aboard a spacecraft that is on a 120-year journey from Earth to a colony planet.
A malfunction causes him to wake up 90 years early, leaving him the sole passenger awake during a journey that he will not be alive to complete.
Driven nearly insane by loneliness, Jim becomes obsessed with another hibernating passenger, Aurora Lane (Lawrence), and eventually decides to wake her up. And because this is a decision that essentially dooms her to spending the rest of her days on the ship and never making it to the colony, he hides his part in her resuscitation. So while Jim and Aurora get closer, this secret lurks in the background.
It is the set-up to what could have been a fascinating exploration of their relationship, but the movie instead veers sharply away into schlocky sci-fi territory.
The predictable elements pile up one by one: from a malfunction on the ship that could kill everyone, to the fact that Jim just coincidentally happens to be a mechanic, to the sudden introduction of a character whose name might as well have been Deus Ex Machina.
Passengers’ most egregious failure, though, is the way it treats Aurora. Instead of depicting Jim’s decision to wake her up as what it is – a man exercising his will and needs over those of a woman – the movie paints it in romantic hues, with scene after scene of their endearing courtship.
Even when the truth about their relationship eventually comes to light, Aurora’s anguish and how she deals with her situation is hardly given space before the film explodes into full-blown space disaster movie mode.
Pratt’s natural charisma and likeability, coupled with the film’s framing of the character, makes it clear that its sympathies lie squarely with Jim. “He is a really, really nice guy,” the film seems intent on proving, as if this somehow justifies him basically taking all of Aurora’s dreams and ambitions away.
Meanwhile, Aurora’s refusal to make nice with Jim is chalked up to her inability to settle down, and her tendency to always look elsewhere for her happiness – talk about one giant leap backward for womankind.
Lawrence is an accomplished actress, and there are glimpses in her performance here of what could have been: perhaps an examination of issues like consent, personal agency and loneliness. After all, the best sci-fi grapples with important themes while also telling gripping stories.
Passengers, though, does neither. And by the time Jim and Aurora are forced to team up to save the ship from imminent destruction, it becomes blatantly obvious that there is only one direction these passengers are heading – whether the rest of us are along for the ride or not.
Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne