Morten Tyldum | 116 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
I got the distinct impression everyone hated Passengers when it came out 18 months ago — it has a lowly 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most of the think-pieces penned in its wake seemed to be about how terrible one particular aspect was (I’ll come to that, hence the spoiler warning). It has a 7.0 on IMDb though, which might not sound great, but anything north of 7 isn’t bad on IMDb — there are plenty of popular movies languishing in the 6s. Personally, I rather enjoyed it.
Sometime in the future, shortly after mankind has begun to colonise other worlds, the spaceship Avalon is on a 120-year journey to a new planet with thousands of colonist-to-be in hibernation onboard. Just 30 years into the trip, the Avalon strikes an asteroid field, causing a malfunction that wakes up just two passengers: Jim (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist. Faced with the prospect of never reaching the destination they’d set out for, the pair begin to develop a relationship.
Or so the trailer would have you believe (and this is where the spoilers come). In fact, the malfunction only awakens Jim. After a year alone on the ship, with his only company being a robot bartender called Arthur (the always excellent Michael Sheen), a suicidal Jim comes across Aurora’s pod. Smitten, he watches her video diary, struggles with the morality of awakening her… and eventually does, claiming her pod must’ve malfunctioned too. What a bastard, right? Eventually Aurora finds out and hates Jim for robbing her of the life she’d intended, but this is a romance movie so…
Obviously, this is the aspect that generated all those digital column inches. Having read some of them, I get the impression that the reason so many people were annoyed by Jim’s dick move is either, a) it wasn’t hinted at by the trailer (therefore people were too busy trying to read the film as a straight-up romance, because that’s what the ads promised, and didn’t consider the actual story it was telling), or b) people seem to really struggle with movies where the lead character makes bad decisions that are either unlikeable or amoral. That’s a general observation I have about audiences, but it seems applicable here. See the numerous “Star Lord is the real villain of Infinity War” hot takes for a similar Chris Pratt-related example.
One of the reasons people being angry about the film’s ethics bug me is that at no point does the movie try to argue that Jim waking up Aurora was a good decision — everyone knows it was a bad, selfish idea. What the film does do is try to make you see why he would make that choice (it takes him over a year to do it, remember), and then shows how everyone eventually deals with the fallout (which is just life — shit you don’t want happens and you have to find a way to handle it). In fact, buried underneath all the romancing and effects whizz-bangery of the film’s climax, maybe there are some decent life/moral lessons, about the need for forgiveness, and accepting, and making the most out of things we can’t change.
A lot of people seemed to jump on the idea the film would be better if acts one and two were flipped — if we woke up alongside Aurora, only later learning of Jim’s betrayal. It would certainly have been different. Better? I don’t know. It would shift the emphasis around a lot. Maybe it would’ve made him romancing her more palatable for those who found it objectionable to their core, because while watching it you wouldn’t know what he’d done — but it wouldn’t change what he did, just how you were presented with it. In some ways, then, the movie we have got is the more interesting version: we know what he did throughout their courtship and have to accept that fact.
Moral questionability aside, the romantic plot is actually traditionally shaped: there’s the meet-cute (it’s just a sci-fi’d-up one), the falling for each other, the disagreement and separation, and eventual reconciliation. Maybe such familiarity is fine when it’s being dressed up in shiny new sci-fi surroundings; maybe it was the problem, too: the massive betrayal at the film’s core gets in the way of a traditional happy-sappy arc; if you wanted to go all gooey over their burgeoning romance, it gets in your way. But it’s a more interesting story because of it. In real life, such a horrid act might prompt a definite “walk away and never see him again” response. Things aren’t so straightforward aboard the Avalon. If you wanted them to be… well, so did Aurora, and she didn’t have a choice either. Perhaps the film could’ve spent more time digging into the emotional impact and decision-making of that rather than faffing with a sci-fi-cum-disaster-movie action-packed climax, but when your movie’s this expensive (as much to do with the no-doubt-ginormous salaries of the two stars as it is the CGI, I expect) you need some money shots and jeopardy to draw the blokes in.
Taken as a sci-fi movie, I really liked it. The concepts are well considered and played out, from the big ideas of how colonisation might work to little touches of how the tech functions. Much of the ship and its interfaces are beautifully designed and realised — I don’t know how much of it was built for real, but I suspect a fair chunk of the main locations are practical, and I do love a big set. I liked Arthur too, partly because I like Michael Sheen, but also because of how he functions as a robot designed to be kind of your mate.
On the whole, I suspect the negative reaction to Passengers is more a case of mismanaged expectations for some audience members rather than it being an objectively bad movie. I guess a lot of critical viewers put themselves in Aurora’s position, but Jim’s dilemma is just as relatable — I mean, not in a literal sense (none of us are ever likely to wind up in such a situation), but in a “what would I do?” way. Clearly, everyone thinks he did the wrong thing, but can you blame him? Would you be able to withstand a life of total loneliness? Maybe you would. Maybe you think you would. Nonetheless, the romance plot is inevitable (because that’s how movie plots work, especially in expensive Hollywood blockbusters), so the time bomb of What He Did adds an uncommon frisson. And the big action climax isn’t bad for what it is.
That said, the more you think about it, the more you can dream up variations that would’ve been of even greater interest. Like, what if Jim wasn’t physically attractive? Would Aurora still have fallen in love with an ugly bloke just because he was the only fella there? Or what if he’d died, leaving her to face the same dilemma he had — would she in fact wake someone up too? But those kinds of alternatives are far too challenging for a Hollywood romantic blockbuster. Like, the only way you’d get a physically unattractive leading man would be if it was a comedy and he was funny, and then she’d fall for him in spite of his looks because he made her laugh. But hey, it’s Hollywood entertainment behaving like Hollywood entertainment — should we be surprised?