Disclaimer: This review will mention the actual plot of the film (without any spoilers), which some viewers may find different from the plot suggested by the trailer.
Passengers is a romantic science fiction film directed by the Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum, and starring Chris Pratt as a mechanic named Jim Preston, who wakes up 90 years too early from his induced stasis aboard a spacecraft, which is bound for a newly colonised planet. Realising that he is the only passenger aboard the Starship Avalon that has accidentally been awoken, Jim wakes up another passenger from her long sleep, and that is of course the beautiful Aurora Lane, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Most of the film then depicts the budding romance and drama between the two lonely passengers, while a suspicious threat is slowly building up around the unsuspecting passengers.
Morten Tyldum is, of course, best known for directing Benedict Cumberbatch in the Oscar-winning Imitation Game, so his involvement in Passengers is sure to get a percentage of fans excited. Despite this, he is far from being a well-known name in the industry due to his relatively limited portfolio and track record. The main draw of the film thus stems from the almost household names of megastars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, whose A-list status is not undeserved. But can they turn this project into an A-grade film, or will this just be another star-studded passenger in the train of 2016 movie mediocrity?
Passengers is by no means a great film overall, nor is it a particularly good science fiction or romance movie. The obvious on-screen charm of the lead characters coupled with futuristic, well-designed visual effects are its redeeming qualities, the flames of which are ultimately stamped out by significant pacing issues, poor momentary scene editing and a plot that gets progressively messy and borders on ridiculousness. The film elicits an initial upward gradient of intrigue and drama, but somehow never manages to reach the emotional heights one would expect from a romance/sci-fi/thriller that Passengers obviously aimed to be. A film that is marketed rather inaccurately from the trailers, which I feel should be known if you’re the type to carry expectations based on trailers. That aside, while being definitively disposable, the film is harmless and discussion-worthy if you’re watching with a friend, and in all fairness, is something fans of Pratt or Lawrence can sit back and enjoy for the most part.
Visuals, Chemicals and Black Holes
The best card that Passengers plays is its visual effects. One doesn’t have to watch much of the film to realise that a big chunk of the budget was dedicated to the detailed CGI (along with the 12 and 20 million dollars purportedly earned by Pratt and Lawrence). Traveling through the Starship Avalon’s many unique rooms and areas was one of the highlights of the film, as it felt very much like a multi-purpose theme park of some holiday resort. Each of the many chambers are designed remarkably, with no obvious CGI errors, barring scenes shot on the exterior of the ship which had somewhat passable effects, but ultimately didn’t take me out of the film.
But let’s face it, most of the people who look forward to Passengers do so due to the star appeal of the two leads, who have been paired up for the first time. Do they deliver a solid performance? I would say so. Chris Pratt fortunately plays the only character who is written with depth as he showcases the moral conflict of a man who chose to condemn another passenger to death as an alternative to unbearable loneliness. This conflict, however, stays undercooked as the film switches focus towards the third act of the film, favouring plot development over further character building. Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora Lane receives surprisingly less screen time than Pratt, and does come off as a tad unbelievable in the first half of the film, where there were several lines that felt read from a script. Eventually she shows signs of her prowess as one of Hollywood’s most adept actresses after a scene midway through the film, though the film never allows for her deep emotions to manifest substantially before giving us an outburst which has nowhere near the same impact as, say, Katniss in the Victors Village at the end of Mockingjay Part 2. The chemistry between Jim and Aurora is rather sweet, and many fans will appreciate seeing these stars fall for each other, but to call a spade a spade, the pair-up isn’t particularly exceptional, and will soon be forgotten come the rest of the new year. Michael Sheen is the only other cast member with significant screen time, as he plays the sophisticated, bartender android Arthur (how fitting for the ship). Apart from putting in a solid yet familiar acting performance, he initially serves as the only other entity that Jim can talk to, but later plays a major role in driving the plot forward, which at first seemed outrageous, but later made more sense after considering the well-written dialogue in that one scene. Also of note is Lawrence Fishburne’s appearance in the film, which will remain memorable for just how wasted and lazy it was, functioning only to force the story along. Any actor would have been able to play that role, but oh well.
Good Passengers, Bad Drivers
Where Passengers falters is in its very uneven pacing. We start the film by following Jim in an excruciatingly slow first act, and though this progresses to a reasonably good flow once Aurora joins the fray, the pacing then overcompensates for the first act by rushing through the third, with jarring cuts that seem to take our characters from one room to another in a split second. This would usually be a problem, but at this point the film was a bit of a bore, such that a jarring cut which brought us straight to the action was almost a welcome one.
Though the premise is rife with potential, the plot was an unsurprising, play-by-numbers approach at what could have been a cool, slick, Titanic-esque love story in space. There were just too many plot devices that didn’t make sense from a realistic perspective, and the final climax (there’s more than one of these) is just plain ludicrous, to the point that people in my cinema hall were laughing at the impossibility of a particular outcome, when the film clearly wanted to hold the viewer in suspense. It just felt as if too many convenient events happened in succession, which is a classic trope many movies are guilty of, though not many will make them as obvious as its use in Passengers. This made it increasingly difficult to suspend disbelief for the most important scenes, which was simply frustrating.
The jury is still out on whether Morten Tyldum is to be trusted with his future projects, something that we can only start deciding after his very next film. What we do know is that Passengers isn’t his proudest moment, and while the film benefits from Pratt and Lawrence’s mere presence on the poster, this will represent a step backwards and hopefully a learning experience for the Norwegian director. If you’re looking to have a good time watching a disposable flick, then you could do much worse than Passengers. But don’t expect to be wowed or impressed at anything other than the visuals and world-building, as you may end up watching the end credits with a swell of disappointment and a satisfaction that there currently isn’t a script in the works for a sequel.
Overall Rating: 6.2/10
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Nick Oon (author) from London on January 16, 2017:
Thanks @Cedric Yong. I agree that we should never really get super angry over films. The trailer for Passengers alone tells you not to expect something from Kubrick or Nolan, but rather a conflicted love story in space. I'm not sure what those other reviewers said, but if they were strongly criticisng reasonable elements such as the plot and pacing as well, then I can sort of understand where they're coming from. Have a great week ahead!
Scribbling Geek from Singapore on January 16, 2017:
I think your review is very fair. I read a couple of really ... angry ones elsewhere and my impression is that those reviewers just completely missed the pt. This isn't high brow sci-fi. It's really all about the two leads and I personally thought they did a reasonable job.