There’s a strange way that an opinion of a film can change once the memories of it have had time to settle. Upon walking out of Morten Tyldum’s latest film after the Oscar winning The Imitation Game, Passengers seemed to be a decent sci-fi film with some great special effects and enough subject matter to chew over for a while to come. It was only once a few days had passed, the dust had settled, and there’d been time enough to ponder that the problematic side of Passengers came to the fore. Not enough to ruin the perfectly enjoyable initial experience, but enough to sour it.
Five thousand human colonists are in hibernation pods on the space ship Avalon at the beginning of Passengers. Their destination is Homestead II, a planet that can support human life in a neighboring galaxy of which they will make the next in a string of human colonies around relatively close stars. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is one of those on board when his pod unexpectedly wakes him up. All alone on the massive ship with his only company being the robotic bartender (Michael Sheen), unable to get back into hyper sleep he’s faced with the very real prospect of dying alone as it will be another ninety years until the Avalon reaches its destination.
The script for Passengers is a story of development hell. It was written back in 2007 by John Spaihts where it made the black list and has been passed around since then. It’s rumored that some sizable checks went to both Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence for signing up to the project and there were worrying reports that reshoots were happening as late as October. Considering that it’s coming out around December alongside a very loud marketing campaign all the signs point towards this being a massive clunker.
Fortunately Morten Tyldum has managed to make a decent film out of a hardly original but well told screenplay. There are enough cool sci-fi gadgets to satisfy the geeky crowd and there’s a nice romance to add an emotional core to what might have become a tediously vanilla science fiction outing. The idea of passengers being put into hyper sleep to traverse the unthinkable distance of space isn’t new or particularly fresh but there’s a twist at the half way point that adds at least some element of originality.
Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt have an instant chemistry. When you have one of the most popular actresses in the world and a man who seems to be the living embodiment of charisma you’d better hope that they work together on screen. Even though Pratt seems to be on auto-pilot – one scene has him literally saying “Dance off. You and me” – there’s enough genuine charm between them to make up for the massive contrivance that brings them together. Michael Sheen is also good as the suave Arthur who doesn’t let some rather whorish product placement get in the way of what must have been a fun performance. After all, who wouldn’t want to play a robot bartender?
For the cine-literate there’s a very clear and deliberate Kubrick aesthetic. The excellent design of the ship has moments when it looks just like a curving corridor from 2001 and Sheen’s character is clearly modeled off the best bartender in cinematic history – Lloyd from The Shining.
However, as said in the beginning, there is one or possibly two major problems that Passengers has that upon reflection are nearly fatal. At about the half-way point one character makes a decision that, depending on how the viewer interprets it, might totally destroy the film. To the script’s credit it isn’t a decision entered into lightly and there’s a lot of discussion later on but all is eventually forgiven; it leaves a very sour taste in the mouth. Much has been written about it and when the morals are addressed there isn’t much that can excuse this character’s decision. The implications of the final scene are really creepy too.
The obvious production quibbles are on display as well. A few plot points don’t really go anywhere and it feels like there’s a whole other subplot left on the cutting room floor. Andy Garcia for example, who is fifth billed on the post, gets approximately eight seconds of screen time. Seriously – less than ten seconds – why would you hire Andy Garcia for that?
Even with the very real problems the experience of watching Passengers was enough to warrant a recommendation. Certain implications are enough to break the film but it doesn’t change that this a very stylish and above all entertaining way to welcome in the new year.
Passengers is in cinemas 1st January through Roadshow Films.