Norwegian director Morten Tyldum may not be as flashy as some of the other filmmakers who’ve broken into Hollywood recently, but between his little-seen 2011 thriller “Headhunters” and his Oscar-winning drama “The Imitation Game,” it’s evident that he has serious chops behind the camera. Despite that past success, Tyldum’s latest project is easily his biggest movie to date – a heady slice of genre-hopping sci-fi developed from one of the hottest scripts in town and starring two of its most bankable stars. Though the film fails to reach its lofty ambitions, “Passengers” is still a surprisingly thought-provoking holiday release that’s biggest misstep is succumbing to the very formula that it works so hard to resist.
Sometime in the distant future, interstellar space travel has not only become a reality but a way for humans like blue-collar mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) to immigrate to other planets. Jim is one of 5,000 passengers traveling aboard the Starship Avalon, a luxury cruise liner currently en route to the colony world of Homestead II. The Avalon is just 30 years into its 120-year journey, however, when it sustains damage during a meteor storm that causes Jim’s hibernation pod to malfunction, waking him up 90 years too early. Stranded on the ship alone with no way to contact the sleeping crew and only a robotic bartender (Michael Sheen) to keep him company, Jim spends the next year slowly spiraling into depression until he becomes smitten with a fellow passenger named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and decides to wake her prematurely against his better judgement. Jim keeps his involvement a secret from Aurora at first, but as the two grow closer together over time, he becomes racked with guilt. Meanwhile, a larger threat looms in the background when the spaceship inexplicably begins to break down.
“Passengers” is basically “Titanic” in space, albeit with much weightier themes on its mind like mortality, loneliness and agency that creates an interesting dynamic between Jim and Aurora. The morally complex plot isn’t handled as well as it could be, but the questions that it poses (namely, would you knowingly condemn someone to the same fate? And if you were the victim, would you have the capacity for forgiveness?) don’t exactly have easy answers. Though there’s no denying that what Jim does is wrong (even if most people would probably do the same thing in his situation), the implication by certain critics that the film somehow promotes sexism (or worse, rape culture) not only feels like a gross misrepresentation that misses the point, but it also severely undervalues Lawrence’s strong female character. With that said, a couple tweaks to the script, like having Sheen’s robot perpetrate the crime instead, whether intentionally or due to a malfunction, could have avoided this problem altogether.
It’s just a shame that Tyldum and screenwriter Jon Spaihts didn’t feel the need to deal with Jim’s actions more head-on, because while the movie begins as a thoughtful character piece, its sudden pivot into blockbuster territory in the final act brushes away that ethical dilemma a little too casually. The world that Tyldum and Spaihts have created is so captivating that it’s easy to see how their focus may have been derailed, but despite a few really cool sequences in the latter half, the setup is much better than the payoff. Casting the immensely likable Pratt and Lawrence was a masterstroke that helps to cover up many of its flaws, but “Passengers” is far from perfect. Although it’s ultimately held together by some imaginative worldbuilding and the chemistry of its two leads, your mileage will vary depending on how you choose to interpret its polarizing plot twist.