The mega-budget sci-fi thriller romance Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, is shaping up to be one of the most critically razzed movies of the year, but I was on its side and then some until its bummer of an ending. Often filmmakers will box themselves into corners and find that there’s no way out except by breaking through a wall that they’ve erected themselves. Then audiences get angry. I just got sad. But not so sad that I can’t make a case for the movie in general and Lawrence — who acts her heart out — in particular.
The problem is the premise. I know that sounds fatal, but hear me out. The setting is a giant starship, the Avalon, carrying 5,000 passengers in suspended animation who will open their eyes after 120 years to find themselves on a fresh, green, unsullied planet where they and their fellow humans can begin again. No one is supposed to wake up before then but a particularly nasty asteroid smacks one side and up pops Pratt as Jim Preston, an engineer looking for a new life — and a new love — in a new world. He finds to his dismay that he has 90 years left in the voyage and no way of getting back to sleep or even waking up someone who might know what to do: The staff is snoozing behind locked and impregnable doors, while the corporation that runs the Avalon is beyond the range of communication. His only companion is an android bartender played by Michael Sheen whose rote, cheerful banter will only go so far. After more than a year of aching grief and loneliness (and drinking), Jim glances into one of the pods and sees a gorgeous young blonde. If only ... if only ...
The absurdities are obvious. We are asked to believe that a giant spacecraft with 5,000 people aboard has no provision whatsoever for getting struck by an asteroid or anything else. (There’s a deliberate echo of the Titanic — it’s asteroid-proof!) We are asked to believe that no one on the crew would even stir if the craft were on the verge of blowing up. Okay, 120 years is a long time for a couple of people to stand guard, but couldn’t crew members put in a year or two each, pass the baton, and go back to sleep? Nope: We are asked to believe that once the ship leaves home you can wake someone up from suspended animation but not put them back into it, even though the ship is the size of a small city and the medical facilities boggle the 21st-century imagination. As Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride would say, “Inconceivable!”
Now clear your head and consider Passengers in a way that’s less ploddingly literal-minded. The setting is tantalizing. It’s what many of us dream about: the possibility of escaping a maybe-doomed planet and a nihilistic culture without losing our youth and good looks (or our middle-aged and not entirely terrible looks). The corporation at the center of the movie sells the dream hard (“The jewel of unoccupied worlds!” “Room to grow!”) as corporations will do, and constructs a combination of the QEII and the Mall of America. The more money you spend, the more luxury you get. Jim, who’s poor, will have to fork over a percentage of what he makes on the new planet, which means he shares something with a lot of immigrants making perilous voyages right now.
The situation is tantalizing, too. A man with an adolescent mind-set (he’s supposed to be a bit of a nerd) goes through multiple stages of grief, acceptance, and more grief. He makes do for a while in his high-tech playground (a thousand meters long), enjoying access to consumer goods in the manner of many protagonist-survivors in post-apocalypse films. A voyeur to his core, he gazes on his sleeping beauty — her name is Aurora Lane — and knows he has the power to bring her life, though at a terrible cost to her. It’s not a spoiler — okay, it’s a spoiler — but no, it’s not really a spoiler — I mean, if Aurora stays in her pod then Lawrence wouldn’t have top billing, unless the movie is all flashbacks which you know it isn’t if you’ve seen the trailer — so it’s not a spoiler ... Anyway, the dumb schmuck ends up in heaven and hell at once.
There’s a lot of good material here and a lot of fun to go with it. The Norwegian-born director, Morten Tyldum, made the delicious Jo Nesbo adaptation Headhunters and the less delicious but trim and absorbing piece of Oscar bait, The Imitation Game. He does elegant work, which feels especially good given all the clutter in most of today’s CGI-packed sci-fi adventures. (The ubiquitous little robot vacuum cleaners are a nice metaphor for how the movie is composed and shot.) The writer, Jon Spaihts, has a talent for knowing when to put the little picture ahead of the big one, so no matter how unlikely the circumstances, the psychology feels true. Aurora turns out to be a writer and, after interviewing the only human within a gazillion miles, begins to explore her own feelings (in voice-over). Why did she feel she needed to leave Earth to find herself? As the film becomes more romantic, our knowledge of Jim’s crime keeps gumming up the fantasy — as it should.
Jennifer Lawrence is a star by virtue of being both lovely and irrepressibly earthy, a glamorous young woman who’d be the first to laugh if she let out a fart. She’s not an untouchable dream girl — her voice grounds her. When Aurora comes to life, Passengers stops being a self-centered boy’s fantasy and becomes the tragedy of a woman whose life has been taken away by a self-centered boy — not an uncommon scenario in the real world. Lawrence can still surprise you with the depth of her soulfulness and, in this case, rage. How can anyone jeer a movie with a performance like this?
One reason is where the movie goes. The climax, with its cliffhanger after cliffhanger after cliffhanger, forces Lawrence to emote in a vacuum. (Her emotional arc might work on the stage of the Met with music by Puccini.) And the resolution can be seen as a betrayal of Aurora’s spirit — although it’s possible that many endings were tested and this one sent a segment of the audience home happy. The entire last act has one or two nice moments (another star makes an appearance), but it marks the return — or perhaps the revenge — of formula storytelling. And don’t talk to me about the final voice-over. Close your eyes and plug your ears.
What pisses people off, I think, is the mixture of florid romanticism and voyeuristic creepiness — which is exactly what’s enjoyable about Passengers when the balance is right. Something of the movie’s true spirit can be detected in the face of Sheen’s bartending android, Arthur. Just below the smiling surface he’s ironic, mischievous, dirty-minded. He’s alternately stabilizing and destabilizing as the plot demands. He’s like the spirit of the corporation that sees all we do and will ultimately control our destiny. Only a corporate entity could deliver an ending like this one. But only humans could devise and enact the often delightful scenario that precedes it.