“Passengers” has an interesting concept for a story. In the future, Earth has become overpopulated and too expensive to live on. A corporation has developed a new revenue stream out of colonizing distant planets, recruiting people to move there for free in exchange for paying 20% of their future earnings to that corporation for life, and sending cruise spaceships to and from those planets by putting people into “hypersleep”, where they can be preserved without aging for the duration of the journey. In this film, a ship moving at half the speed of light takes 120 years to get to the colony. The film begins with a malfunction causing one passenger aboard the ship to wake up out of hypersleep 90 years before the ship will reach the colony, meaning he’ll grow old and die alone on the ship before it reaches the destination since he’s somewhere in his 30s. That man is Jim (Chris Pratt), and the first act of the film involves him, alone, trying everything he can to fix the situation, realizing he can’t, then diving into the ships many entertaining diversions. As he spends more time on the ship and gets more bored, lonely, and depressed, he considers waking up a passenger in hypersleep that he finds attractive and whose personality he finds himself drawn to via what is available in the ship’s records about her. This is Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), and his decision to wake her up, thus dooming her to same fate he faces, is understandable but also the most selfish and morally reprehensible thing I can remember a character doing in any film that wants us to believe it is a romance.
I had the pleasure of reading an early draft of this film’s screenplay by Jon Spaihts, which once made the annual “Black List” of the industry’s favorite unproduced screenplays. That script was from 2007, so 9 years have elapsed between when that draft was completed and when the finished film hit movie screens. The script’s first act solves some of the problems I have with the film’s first act, which moves too fast and doesn’t effectively convey the length of time and torturous loneliness Jim feels enough for us to be able to give him any sympathy, or at least empathy, when he makes the decision to wake Aurora up. In the script, we are given title cards telling us the passage of time, and Jim does many more things alone to help us feel the soul-crushing depression he must be having, such as becoming fluent in a new language (Russian) and having the android bartender (Michael Sheen) make him a new drink from the android’s programming every day until the bartender actually runs out of new drinks to make him. The film, instead, rushes from Jim being scared, to sad, to enjoying fancy dinners and video games, to being sad and unshaven and walking around with his bare ass hanging out all day. We are given no time to feel his plight, which capsizes the film because then the film cannot generate enough emotional punch behind Jim to make the audience even halfway okay with his decision to wake up Aurora. Instead, it comes across in the film like Jim was slightly bored and did it on a whim. Later, when the film tries to tell us they are in love, both during the lie that Aurora waking was an accident and post the revelation, it comes across like the kidnapper from “Room” enjoying a wish-fulfillment fantasy.
The second act of the film tries to be a different movie…perhaps the movie that was advertised in the trailers, which didn’t divulge the set up of Jim waking up alone and then Aurora being woken up on purpose by him. The second act is Aurora going through the same stages Jim went through, and then the two of them falling for each other because, well, they have no other option for mates and people sharing a traumatic experience are bound to bond with one another. Plus, he’s as handsome as Chris Pratt and she’s as pretty as Jennifer Lawrence so, yeah. This second act is watchable because the actors are likeable and all, but it’s like the movie wants to forget about the horrible reason Aurora is awake for this segment because it wants you to root for them to be together. The film also stresses that Jim is from a working class background and Aurora is a more affluent New York city writer (in the original script, Aurora is a reporter who wants to write an expose about the corporation behind the colonies, and the script has a more anti-Capitalist slant, however slight. In the film, she’s just a run-of-the-mill book writer who seems to just want to write a memoir), as if the film is trying to excuse Jim’s decision by saying “well, how ELSE would these two ever get together?” Class forces preventing soul mates from being with each other would make an excellent film for a Marxist such as myself, but “Passengers” is not that film.
Then the third act of the film is a standard disaster movie thing, where the problems with the ship are exacerbated and Jim and Aurora are forced to work together to solve the problem despite Aurora hating Jim for good reason. Somehow the trial of them saving the ship and the 5000 people still in hypersleep makes Aurora love Jim again and be okay with what he has done. The film even *SPOILER ALERT* gives Aurora the choice of going back to sleep, but she chooses to live out her life on the ship with Jim. Sure. At least in the original script the problems with the ship cause all of the occupied hibernation pods to be ejected from the ship, meaning Aurora would have died if she had not been woken up, which doesn’t excuse Jim’s behavior, but at least gives Aurora’s Stockholm Syndrome a tad more license. *SPOILERS END*
The film is mainly a missed opportunity. I have read a number of different places where this film could have gone from a number of different film critics, and any one of them would have made a better film. Personally, I’d be okay if the first act from the original script remained, and even the second act, but filmed with a different tone than a love story. The 3rd act is pretty fatal CGI and Hollywood nonsense, but the better 3rd act of the script was also flawed because of the very abrupt ending and for not adequately dealing with Jim’s decision. They changed the 3rd act for the film, but they took it in the completely wrong, opposite direction. The charismatic stars are not enough to save the film’s flaws. C.