At the heart of Sony Pictures latest piece Passengers (2016) there is a major moral dilemma that demands to be debated. So much so, after attending a screening my friend and I argued relentlessly, having taken vastly different approaches to analyzing the film in those tired and intellectually-hazy moments after the credits roll. While I viewed the ethical conundrum as understandable, even somewhat inevitable, my friend was quick to profess that no matter the circumstances, such actions are inexcusable. While we stubbornly butted heads for the next half-hour before ‘agreeing to disagree’, such heated discussion shows just how Passengers has stolen its way to something more than ordinary. No great film for sure, but it is an important one if only for the fact it challenges people to make their own decision on such morally ambiguous problems. Beware though, spoilers abound henceforth.
We begin our filmic journey aboard the Starship Avalon, a spacecraft transporting 5000 souls in suspended animation on a 120-year journey to the new world of Homestead II. Despite promises from the global conglomerate operating the expedition that it is fail-safe and the passengers will awake just three months before they should reach their destination, during a meteor storm one pod malfunctions and mechanic Jim Preston finds himself alone onboard, with 90 years still to go. Denied access to the crew’s quarters and unable to find a fix to reset his pod, Jim’s loneliness begins to get the better of him. With his only company that of robotic bartender Arthur, after a year of unsuccessful attempts to fix his situation he reaches the end of his tether and drunkenly decides to launch himself from the ship sans helmet. Backing out at the last minute, Preston stumbles, quite literally, across the gorgeous, golden-locked and very much asleep Aurora Lane. Cyber-stalking her through the computer’s database, Preston begins to fall for the proverbial sleeping beauty and in one of the year’s biggest filmic quandaries, decides to wake her up. Oblivious to the truth behind Preston’s actions, which have doomed her to live out her life on the ship as well, Aurora begins to grow closer to the engineer, while he tries unsuccessfully to bury the guilt of his staggeringly selfish decision. But when a slip of the tongue brings the façade down just as the ships systems begin malfunctioning, the two must put aside their differences to protect everyone else onboard.
Visually, Passengers is a masterpiece, launching audiences into the wide expanse of space with a stunning display of control. From adrenaline infused anti-gravity moments, to solar fly-bys, beauty abounds even when the script slips up. One moment in particular is as excruciating to watch as it is impossible to look away from, with Lawrence experiencing a weightless dip in the onboard pool. Craftily choreographed and stunningly realized thanks to some CGI help, it will be a standout for years to come. Jon Spaihts script in comparison, does few favours to those onboard, laying down a foundation of clichés thick and fast. One can’t help but feel he has taken bits and pieces from every story out there, crafting a utopian world that is perfectly pristine while simultaneously infusing it with one of the oldest tales around – that of the famed Adam and Eve. So much does he struggle that he even employs a literal Garden of Eden to pick up the slack.
It is also hard to pin Passengers down to a simple genre, as it tediously flips back and forth between sci-fi, drama and action piece. While it handles the jump to explosions and fireballs with aplomb, it’s hard not to focus on how easily it also slips into suggestive stripper territory. With multiple sex scenes and plenty of naked torsos abounding, we bounce back to the tradition that a movie can’t make millions if it doesn’t display a little skin. It’s not a complaint per se, but if everyone is all too willing to call out the clichéd and cheesy romance between our leading lady and lad, then they should be just as quick to question their steamy screen appearances. Thankfully, the film never slows down enough for our minds to wander to this, as we yearn to know what pleasures the ship affords, what backstories will be brought to light and whether anyone else will awaken to help our plucky protagonists out.
Utilizing the world’s two top stars in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence is a smart move by director Morten Tyldum, and it pays off two-fold as they deliver impassioned and empathetic performances. Their chemistry is undeniable, quipping back and forth with genuine emotion, however even Pratt, the breakout hit he is, struggles to fully encompass the absolute weight of destroying someone’s life. Michael Sheen does far better with his supporting character Arthur, bringing charm, wit and warmth to what could otherwise have been a detached and distant role. Despite the script’s limitations, he packs the energetic punch we need, in an otherwise dreary monotony. Lawrence strips back her regular routine too, humanizing Aurora in the process and helping guide the film along at a good pace. Resourceful as everyone in the picture seems to be and despite the smile they consistently bring to the corner of your lips, it’s a shame that for the most part they appears to simply be along for the ride, rather than steering the ship home.
Of course, the main moral dilemma has already set many a critic’s tongue a-wagging, with labels such as ‘disturbing’ and ‘sinister’ thrown about. However, as foolish as it is to argue against such a stance, it is just as imprudent for society to ignore the deeper discourse it braves to travel. There are countless hard decisions we face every day and it’s important to discuss how we as individuals would choose to handle them. For starting the discussion, Passengers has already achieved the glory it warrants. Is taking someone’s freedom away ever right? Or is there such a thing as true love? Better yet, if you were faced with a lifetime of loneliness, would you have the willpower to say no? So the film’s biggest flaw falls not on its formulaic approach, or even it’s ‘big’ twist, but rather in its choice to fall back on blowing things up in Act III, an action that reeks of big budget studios trying to cash in. Released in the same month as the mega-movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), the film could easily have singled its self out as a strong and empowering exploration of the human condition rather than challenging the sci-fi realm. Instead, after all the bravado and beauty, it simply fades into the night sky, just like the Avalon.
Rating: 3 Unhelpful Computers out of 5
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