Passengers, 2016, 2 stars

Space absurdity

Passengers lacks clarity, intelligence

From The Orlando Weekly, December 21, 2016

Image copyright Columbia Pictures / LStar Capital

The ideas buried beneath the surface of Passengers are big: loneliness, companionship, technological morality and the nature of humanity’s role in the universe. It’s too bad the film’s screenplay, director and actors are unqualified to cinematically discuss those ideas.

The time is the indeterminate future, and Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) are passengers on the Starship Avalon, a space cruise ship ferrying them on a 120-year journey from Earth to the “colony world” of Homestead II, a for-profit planet designed for Earthlings who are looking for a new start. Like the other 5,256 people aboard the ship, they are in hibernation – that is, until they wake up too early, 90 years too early. The cause of their premature awakening is one of the film’s central plot points, so I won’t ruin it except to say that the dilemma forces them to face physical and psychological issues akin to being stuck on a Carnival boat by yourself for your entire life.

Jim is an engineer and was enticed by the cruise company’s promise of “a new world, a fresh start, room to grow,” while Aurora is a journalist. She hopes to document her journey and her time on the new planet before returning to Earth to tell her story. Of course, when she gets back to Earth, it’ll be 240 years later, but she will have aged little thanks to hibernation.

The movie never discusses how time on the ship, which is traveling at half the speed of light, is running 15 percent more slowly than Earth time. But, then again, the movie never intelligently discusses anything of depth. It does occasionally try, and Michael Sheen (as a robot bartender straight out of a Twilight Zone episode) does offer interesting commentary on the nature of existence and consciousness. But director Morten Tyldum and editor Maryann Brandon only compound the problems inherent in Jon Spaihts’ screenplay by failing to add coherence or plausibility, especially toward the end, when the production turns from a rather boring and dumbed-down space romance to a ridiculously over-the-top and muddled action film populated with dialogue better suited to Lethal Weapon than Solaris or Moon (two films Tyldum should have studied more closely). How Tyldum could have directed both this and The Imitation Game is perplexing.

Even Thomas Newman’s music is bad. Intrusive and lacking any sort of smart, other-worldly quality, the score seems lifted from two separate films from the 1980s: a bad rom-com and a silly action flick. Silence would have been better. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence brings her usual energy, and Laurence Fishburne is an interesting, though underused, addition. Lawrence’s strong chemistry with Pratt, not to mention the film’s interesting premise, will likely mean box-office success, but Pratt is hopelessly out of his depth and never fully displays a true sense of isolation and terror that the part demands. (See Tom Hanks in Cast Away.) That leaves the CGI and cinematography as the only elements lifting Passengers above the level of a 1960s sci-fi B-movie.

But even the competent special effects grow tiresome. It’s all just lipstick on a pig. And, as Jim Henson taught us, the only pigs that belong in space are Muppets.

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