We’ve entered the span of time where the popular movies (that aren’t part of sagas or cinematic universes) are the ones based in outer space. In the last three years alone, I’m counting fourteen of them (not including franchise films, which could have easily pushed it to twenty). Now the ones that probably come to mind first are films like Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015) – thrillers, mostly, filled pretty heavily with science and big, life-altering questions that the characters would face before posing them to the audience. Passengers decided to sidestep the landmine of trying to figure out how much science its audience could take (real or imaginary) and marketed themselves as an adventurous, almost action-style trip thousands of miles into space. Unfortunately, not only is the film not an action-packed adventure, it’s not even much of a thriller or a drama. It is what seems to be a half-written script that relies on the star power of its two cast members to get people in the theater.
A new colony of people is set up on the planet Homestead 2, 120 light years away from Earth, and travelers get there on the starship Avalon. All passengers and crew are put into hibernation for the majority of their journey, only meant to awaken a month or two before arrival. However, with 90 years still left in his journey, engineer Jim Preston’s (Chris Pratt) hibernation pod malfunctions and he wakes up with no way to go back to sleep for the remainder of the journey. As he tries to find a solution, he comes across the video diary of fellow traveler Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and tries to decide whether or not to wake her up and spare himself from spending the rest of his life alone. Underneath it all is the frightening realization that in all the times Avalon has traversed the universe, the hibernation pods have never malfunctioned. So why now?
I tried to go into this movie with an open mind, despite the fact that most critics were already giving it a lot of negative feedback. Walking out, I can’t help but agree with them. This movie seemed to rely so heavily on the star power of Lawrence and Pratt that anything they could possibly do would make viewers love it. Instead, neither of them are really living up to their reputations. Pratt has already gained fame as “the funny guy”, and while I have no problems with him trying a more serious role, it would work a lot better if the movie could decide whether it wanted him to be funny or serious. They end up making him blunder around like he usually does, only he’s trying to make us believe he’s Matt Damon in The Martian and it comes off twice as creepy when he’s falling in love with the still-sleeping Lawrence. His decision to wake her up then makes him seems like an even bigger creep than Edward in Twilight, though you can at least give him that he was just a passenger who wasn’t trained for spending an extended period alone. Not that Lawrence is given much better treatment, despite her much higher billing (for less screen time, mind you). Granted, I’m not a huge fan of hers, but I do believe she can do better than the first half of the film where she doesn’t seem to know what her motivation is for anything, and then the second half where she gets one or two powerful moments before becoming the incompetent female in a dangerous situation. Between that and their attempts to make us believe they have chemistry with each other, I really wish there had been more characters in this film to distract me. They did throw Laurence Fisburne in for a little while, but don’t expect him to make up for everything else’s shortcomings.
To be fair, we do get Michael Sheen in the shining role of Arthur the android bartender, whose robotic personality traits are a refreshing break from the awkward fumbles of his fellow cast members. You look forward to his performance at the start because you want someone other than creepy Chris to focus on, but as you work your way through 116 crawling, agonizing minutes, you start to welcome Sheen’s appearances because he seems to be the only thing moving the plot along. In between moments of actual dialogue there are lots of cuts of Chris staring at JLaw, wandering around the ship, and doing some engineering (even though he’s already said he can’t fix the hibernation pods or anything he really wants fixed, so what even is he doing?). Sure, the film is trying to convince us that years are actually going by while all this is happening, but it’s very clumsily done and makes you wonder at the end of the movie why it couldn’t have been at least twenty minutes shorter.
Now, normally with movies that take place in outer space, even if the story is boring us a little bit we can at least enjoy the scenery because outer space is really awe-inspiring. You know, if you do it right. The sad thing is, Passengers makes us spend a lot of our time on the Avalon ship, rather than exploring the part of this journey that makes it fun, namely the SPACE. The entire ship is set up so that the passengers, when they wake up, are in complete comfort, like a resort. They have a basketball court, a movie theater, a high-school cafeteria, and a dance-off platform. But even on this great travel, there are only a couple of references to the fact they are on a spaceship traversing across the galaxy, which is pretty awesome, and so Pratt and Lawrence only use these (and therefore, share the with the audience) a couple of times. The scene where the artificial gravity malfunctions while Lawrence is in the pool is actually great, and when they actually do make little excursions outside the ship it is breathtaking, but the inside of the spaceship is not actually that interesting. At least, not enough to make us happy that we spend all our time there.
I’m about to get really nit-picky here, something I know not everyone is when they watch a movie, so maybe this won’t bother anyone else who watched the movie. But I know one reason that I couldn’t enjoy myself is that I could not believe that even in a sci-fi movie (one I know is just supposed to be enjoyable) that no one planned for a possible malfunction. Sure, the creators of the Avalon were doing their best to make sure that nothing would go wrong on the ship because, as the movie shows, it would take about 30 years for any messages to get back to Earth for assistance. But no one, absolutely NO ONE, thought maybe it would be a good idea to have some extra sleep pod parts in the ship someone in case something did go wrong?! I mean, this is space! It’s not like it’s known for being cooperative or easy for humans to traverse! And Pratt’s character was completely capable of putting himself back to sleep if he had the correct parts to do it. And no crew members were awake to keep an eye on things? I understand that it’s a long journey, but could they not work in shifts? Some people stay awake for ten years or so, then rotate? I mean everyone on the ship is giving their lives on Earth up anyway, so why not make sure everyone is getting to the new planet safely?
I know that this is a movie. I know that it is not a true story and we’re supposed to suspend our belief in reality anyway. But if you want me to enjoy a movie about these amazing space explorations, especially when they’re riding on the coattails of pretty great ones already, at least make me believe the story you’re selling me.
“Every Moment Counts” – except for 116 of them when you’re hoping to speed the whole process along.