To be fair, some people could walk into Passengers in a very precise kind of emotional bliss and have a good time. Maybe they just got a promotion, or just got engaged, or they’ve been drinking heavily. Under certain circumstances, this movie’s very unique combination of awkward tonal dissonance and orchestral over-emoting could strike a chord. Eventually, inevitably, these folks will come down off their sugar high. Two years later, they will find Passengers playing on pay cable, and about five minutes in, they will wonder what the hell they were thinking the first time.
The reality, whether it’s realized up front or years later on HBO, is that Passengers is a disaster of both tone and content, a film so tangled in its own wannabe playfulness that it forgets to tell a story any deeper than its logline. The result is a movie about pretty people lost in space, which could actually be fine enough if the filmmakers were able to conjure some manner of tangible tension between its mega-watt above-the-title stars…or even just manage an offbeat charm. They do, indeed, try…and try…and try. But by the time they realize the effort is a dead-end, there’s only so much time left to proffer a ham-fisted attempt at a futuristic survivalist tale.
“Plot” is an interesting notion in the film – which is to say, there isn’t one. Two hours of uncomfortable character dynamics is all the film can muster, with the intended punch-up of would-be revolutionary spaceship conveniences like automated food and beverage servers (aren’t those just vending machines?). The Passengers marketing campaign has gone to great pains to obscure a big reveal or twist, but the only “spoiler alert” is that there’s nothing to spoil. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are two among the thousands of hibernating passengers on a massive ship traveling from Earth to a new manufactured planetary environment, a trek that takes over a century to complete. The gambit here is that their pods open 90 years early, leaving them with no discernible way to lull themselves back to cryo-sleep, so they must either find a way to correct the internal ship error or be content to live out their lives on the ship, alone.
There is an indie film version of this concept that might work beautifully, one that would allow talented actors like Pratt and Lawrence to explore the nihilistic tendencies of their predicament while also forming a tentative relationship out of necessity, then wrestling with the notion of living a life versus delaying one. But Passengers is more content to treat Lawrence first as an object, then as a victim, then as a damsel, before patting itself on the back by giving her one active moment late in the film. Pratt is made to mug his way through painful sequences in which he plays cyber-basketball and a barely-futuristic version of Dance Dance Revolution while the over-played remix of “A Little Less Conversation” blares away on the soundtrack. The film misses the golden opportunity of having Pratt and Lawrence engage in a pristinely choreographed dance number, but that will just have to exist in my own imagination.
Director Morten Tyldum, fresh off a Best Director nomination for The Imitation Game, seems befuddled with this material, trying his best to strike a Spielbergian balance of futuristic awe and offbeat square-jawed humor, but the effort becomes more painfully strained as the film drones on. Jon Spaihts’ screenplay is largely just a concept without meat, though there is one intriguing bit on which the film could potentially hinge, and it kinda sorta does, though it lacks the conviction to cut these characters too deep. It’s more interested in the occasional blow-up of melodrama before settling back into space rom-com autopilot – that easy place where so many lazy narratives coast, assuming the audience members are in brain hibernation. But eventually our pods will open and we will wake up to its badness, be it now or in two years, when we catch it on TV.