Many science fiction movies tend to focus on mind-expanding scientific or philosophical ideas, revolutionary special effects, symbolism for modern day issues, or some mixture of those three. Rare is the science fiction that focuses on something like pure human relationships while placing no real emphasis on those aforementioned concepts; but that’s exactly what we get with this year’s Passengers. This is a movie about personal relationships, plain and simple; and in regards to other science fiction films, that makes it feel quite unique.
Passengers begins by introducing us to Jim Preston, played by rising star Chris Pratt. Preston was one of thousands hibernating aboard a ship making a 120-year voyage across the cosmos to a new planet. Through a freak accident, Jim’s hibernation pod malfunctions, and he is woken up 90 years too early, with the impossibility of ever re-entering deep sleep. Faced with the prospect of living out his entire life on the ship before it reaches its destination, and with no human contact whatsoever (the closest he gets is a clever but emotionally and intellectually limited android bartender, played excellently by Michael Sheen), Jim begins to despair. That is until he notices the pod of Aurora Lane, a beautiful, intelligent woman whom he quickly falls in love with. As he obsesses over her, he struggles with the temptation to wake her up from hibernation. On the one hand, it could save him from spending the rest of his life alone; on the other, it would ruin hers if she were not able to return to deep sleep. Eventually, he caves.
That’s the main set up in a nutshell; and I must say it’s handled pretty well in this stretch of the film. The movie does a good job of explaining exactly what is necessary to understand and justify the technicalities of the situation (why the journey in space takes as long as it does, why Jim can’t simply return to his pod, etc.), while Pratt sells all of the emotions necessary for us to understand his behavior. We gradually see Preston’s dissent into emotional distress due to isolation and how he desperately tries every other option before ultimately succumbing to his need for other people and waking Aurora; and we definitely understand his decision, even if we know it was wrong. Any movie depicting characters making bad choices whom we can nevertheless sympathize with has done something right in the story telling department; and I do commend the filmmakers for this.
The next stretch of the film — showing the interactions between Aurora and Jim — is somewhat less successful, although it does have parts that work. In fact, much of it works. Aurora is a very strong and intelligent woman (Lawrence plays her quite well), Pratt and Lawrence have great chemistry with each other, and it’s enjoyable to see their two characters fall in love (I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff). Moreover, I hope it’s clear that what I said in the introduction is true — that the film is focused on these characters and their relationship, not on effects or the science fiction parts of its story. Obviously there are many special effects, and various scientific ideas are employed as story telling elements, but they don’t dominate the picture and they are not the center of the movie. Aurora and Jim’s relationship with each other is the emotional and thematic center of this film; and that’s a very admirable approach to try to make a science fiction story so personal in scope.
Unfortunately, this emphasis on relationships is also where the film has its main issues. As you might have guessed, Jim wasn’t honest with Aurora about why she woke up early, and she eventually discovers the truth; and this is where the movie starts to not work as well. While the film gives appropriate time to the initial fallout between the two after Aurora finds out that Jim woke her intentionally, not nearly enough time is devoted to their character and relationship development after that. In another potent combination of bad editing and subpar writing, the relationship between our two characters at any given moment following their fallout becomes inconsistent. Sometimes it seems like they’re getting over their issues; sometimes it doesn’t. There’s very little flow in depicting their relationship, and it feels as though there were many small moments missing from this story that would have detailed these character’s progression in a more organic way.
The latter half of the film also includes a plot point involving Jim and Aurora needing to fix a critical issue with the ship that threatens everyone on board. It’s a change of pace that makes the movie a little more action and technical focused than it previously had been; although it does mean there’s a bit more excitement in the story. It also briefly brings in a new character, played by Laurence Fishburne. Granted, his character mostly serves as a plot device to provide Jim and Aurora with knowledge and security access that they wouldn’t have had before, but I still liked him, if only for Fishburne’s performance. Anyways, this sequence attempts to build towards a big emotional climax, and in the sense that it is engaging, it somewhat hits the mark; but the aforementioned problems with character development mean that the ending doesn’t feel as emotional and cathartic as it probably should have; and we simply don’t feel the connection that we should be feeling to these characters.
To sum up, given that this movie is about the relationship between Jim and Aurora in outer space, the fact that it somewhat fumbles in depicting that in key areas is damaging to the story in a very palpable way. There’s a real sense of lost emotional opportunity here. I have a feeling that a few rewrites and ten or fifteen additional minutes of character development (at 116 minutes, this film would not have suffered by being slightly longer) could have created a much more effective and meaningful work; but we can only guess.
Having said that, I need to be fair in admitting that while the muddled character development hurts the story, it doesn’t completely break it. It’s not as though this film is destroyed by any stretch of the imagination. It’s still an entertaining picture for the most part, with a very captivating premise, good work from Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, and an ending that, while not what it could be, is not boring either. It’s a missed opportunity, but not a ruined film by any stretch of the imagination.
On that level I would recommend seeing this film if you want a love story with a unique spin or are interested in a science fiction movie that doesn’t have the phrase “Star Wars” in the title. Again, it has problems, but it is still a very interesting picture, and that’s worth something these days.