Homestead is a company in the most lucrative industry ever, colonising new planets. They’ll give you a fresh start on a new world, a chance to build and grow a new society. Embark on the Avalon for a 120 year journey, during which time you’ll be held in suspended animation. They’ve never had any problems, until now. Careful for spoilers.
Thirty years into the trip an incident occurs causing one of the hibernation pods to open. Trapped on the ship with no way of re-activating his pod, Jim will die before ever reaching the new world he was promised. Jim panics. Not wanting to accept what’s happening to him, Jim tries everything to fix his pod. Despite being an engineer, there’s nothing he can do and Jim spends a year alone. Jim tries to enjoy his solitude, but it becomes too much for him and depression turns to desperation.
Though he’s technically still alive, with no way of helping himself Jim is essentially a dead man who hasn’t gotten around to dying yet. It’s a psychological goldmine and Chris Pratt has to show the full range of emotions in order to portray this inner struggle. Over the course of a year Jim reaches a point where he considers ending it and then he meets Aurora played by Jennifer Lawrence.
If you were stranded on an island what would you want with you? What if instead of an island it was a ship travelling through space? If you could have someone with you would you? Even if it meant they’d be stuck too?
An ambitious journalist who wants to write a story no one else could, Aurora left Earth on a roundtrip. She’s asleep when Jim first sees her and for a while the movie becomes an odd re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty. Aurora is asleep and only Jim can wake her up. He’s desperate for company and has read everything she’s ever written. He feels connected to her, but waking her up means taking her life away from her and forcing Aurora to live in isolation with him.
Passengers works best when it’s exploring the psychology of the lead characters. There are plenty of opportunities for Pratt and Lawrence to show their range as actors and neither misses the mark. As the characters gradually develop, the problems with the ship become more and more noticeable. Like modern day modes of transport, the Avalon has a class system. Jim has a basic ticket, while Aurora is a gold passenger.
It isn’t until they gain access to crew only areas that they are able to fully understand the extent of the damage. This stockpiles the films action scenes separating them from the slower parts of the movie, because of this the pace is a little strange with a very slow start all leading to a burst of action before returning to the original slow pace. Anyone who studied writing will find it easier than normal to spot the transitions between acts, because the story structure is completely overt.
Some of the films more frustrating problems come from things that are conveniently their just to cause drama in the plot. Jim’s hibernation pod breaks and he is fine, while later in the movie a pod breaking is shown to bring someone back just long enough for them to deliver exposition. The biggest offence has to be the assumption by Homestead that one medical pod would be enough. This is a ship carrying over five thousand people who will all be awake on board for months and they are expected to share one medical pod.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that Passengers is space Titanic. The initial cause of the damage is shown, at the beginning of the film, to be a collision with a large meteor that was in the path of the ship. Then a lower class man falls in love with a high class woman on their doomed ship. Pairing this with the increasingly realistic concept of space colonisation could have made for a really great movie, but the fight between romantic drama, science fiction and psychological thriller never really finds a satisfying blend.
Though the tone is a bit of a mess, the visual effects are excellent. If you get bored, just ignore what’s happening and start looking at the world around the characters. If you have to be stranded somewhere there are worse places than a really cool spaceship that cooks for you. Even the outside looked convincingly real and the spiral design of the ship was pretty cool to look at. We never get to see the Earth they’ve left behind, but in just a few lines of dialogue they build a picture of a world were intellectual jobs thrive while blue collar work is drying up. This is what inspires Jim to leave Earth and build a home for himself on a distant planet.
Passengers suffers from a lack of decisiveness, but there’s still a lot to like. The story manages to be both barebones and drag a little, but the characters are well developed and really well acted. Fans of romance, science fiction and psychology will all find things to like and fans of all three may have hit the jackpot. If you’re looking for a film to watch and you’re willing to overlook a few convenient plot developments, then grab some popcorn and start wondering why people keep paying Jon Spaihts to write about space.