Good science fiction poses a compelling ethical question, against a backdrop of advanced technology, within a context relatable to an audience of the storyteller’s choosing. Passengers does all of that, but the audience may not be chosen terribly well, and is going to be split with the juggernaut of Star Wars’ latest blockbuster, Rogue One.
We are presented with the tale of Jim and Aurora, who’ve awakened so early on a long-term space voyage that they will be dead before arrival (as life expectancy seems to be the only thing not to have advanced in this film’s vision of the future). Desperation to restore their stasis and navigate their budding romance dominate the plot, as the giant starship suffers various technical failures along the way.
The ethical question at hand is a major spoiler, so we’ll avoid directly addressing that. The technology is quite appealing, scientifically sound, and interesting. The audience? It’s hard to be sure. Sci-Fi fans may not appreciate the romance, and are being pulled very hard to give attention to a likely second No. 1 weekend at the box office for Rogue. They also may be put off by the pacing issues the film suffers from, and it’s rather shallow and sudden ending.
There are remarkable and unremarkable things worth calling out about Passengers. Regardless of the weaknesses of the film, it is worth at least one screening, even if viewers wait for its inevitable fast-track to the home video market to do so.
First, the unremarkable.
The film’s story doesn’t seem like a great feat, but serves adequately. The same goes for the musical score. There is also a feeling that co-stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt didn’t need so much to be directed, as blocked into place and allowed to use their well-renowned chops and respective dry wits to navigate the script along their journey. Their pairing is one of the better screen romance matches, and this feels almost like a screen-test for them to headline a forthcoming romantic comedy.
Of the remarkable, the most accomplished notable trait of the film is the ethical question that haunts Pratt’s Jim and looms as a shadow over his budding romance with Lawrence’s Aurora. The struggle presented is original, unique and a deep question which is not likely to have been considered in the minds of most viewers in previous material.
Tech and science in this film are very much on point. The film opens with the ship, The Avalon, as the star of the show. It travels along its journey, bashing into space-borne obstacles and performing a variety of self-diagnoses and automated repairs, re-routings of power and other things we commonly assume a human crew is needed to accomplish. (It is almost as if the creators of this craft’s concept were giving a finger to Star Trek: “See, our ship can reroute power to the main deflector on its own!”) The Avalon’s shape and motion are representative of theories, traditions, and science we’ve seen before, but well-depicted with refreshing value. Real science, such as what might happen if a swimming pool full of water were to suddenly lose gravity with a person in it, receives great representation as well.
Next there is the element of humans vs. tech. You might expect a film like this to go down the oh-so-overplayed route of technology going rogue. While the potential for such is present throughout the story, the mounting technical failures serving as a stress-inducing backdrop to the developing romance story, turn out to be purely accidental and a natural failure. The worst the film can be accused of is a bit of “Titanic Syndrome” in the running gag that imperfections cannot occur within the Avalon’s systems (such as waking a guy up from his hibernation pod a few dozen years too soon).
An amusing element of the gadgets on hand is the evolution of technologies we already have today, into the world of Passengers. The ship is populated by Roomba-like cleaning bots reminiscent of the variety of bots in Wall-E. One stand-out piece of tech is the Siri-like interface of verbal commands the characters engage throughout the film, which deliver the same kinds of canned dead-end replies we suffer from on our iPhones today. We do see, however, that their systems can insert their own punctuation without being prompted, however. Guess the future is bright!
It would be a disservice not to mention the other two actors who contribute to some highlights of the story. The android bartender played by Michael Sheen, and the gruff and all-too-short-lived engineer brought to brief life by Laurence Fishburne are able to keep the whole flick from being monotonous in relying too much on J-Law and Pratt exclusively, but Sheen is one of dozens of actors who could have delivered a similar performance and Fishburne seems like overkill for a role which ends up virtually pointless.
Also remarkable is the pacing of the film, and not in a good way. Sometimes the flow is just exactly right, but many times it slows to a crawl before resuming motion again. As the end of the film nears, the pace is running a decent average. Then, we are suddenly slammed into a wall with a rather low-gravity conclusion leaving audiences with more questions than answers in many of the wrong ways.
All-told, the tale of Jim and Aurora is good but not great. Perhaps it needed more polish and a considerable amount of better planning and promotion, but don’t let the low box-office take imminent in this film’s future deter you. Understand the risks, and go have a little fun with some of the best chemistry in cinema couples outside Gosling and Stone.