Released 2016. Director: Morten Tyldum
WHEN YOU HARM ANOTHER PERSON FOR YOUR OWN selfish reasons, it’s wrong no matter what you may tell yourself. Now what if it led to a different outcome and lives are saved, would it justify your initial act?
Onboard a mass migration spacecraft from Earth to a new home planet, 5000 passengers and crew lie in hibernation for the 120-year journey. Jim awakens after only 30 years and he can’t get back to the long sleep. Jim will die as the loneliest man in the universe, all by himself with 90 years to go before interacting with another human. How does Jim feel, and what does he do? His action will determine the story, as writer Jon Spaihts concocts an existential dilemma of far-reaching consequences.
Jim is an engineer, mechanically minded and handy with tools. He tries to science his way out of this without success. His exploration of the enormous starship is a chance to show us audiences this impressive vessel; no holding back in the set design budget here. Check out the luxurious quarters for the privileged passengers to enjoy when they awake from their sleeping pods. There is even an infinity pool where you swim out to the stars. For the adventurous, nothing beats a tethered spacewalk. Jim also spends his time drinking real liquor served by an android bartender with Michael Sheen’s upper body at a bar clearly modelled after The Shining, not just visually. Like the character played by Jack Nicholson in that horror classic, Jim is stuck in a 'hotel' with no guests, but that's where the smiliarity ends.
A year of living in space by himself eventually drives Jim to the edge, so what if you live out your life in a 5-star hotel cruising through space. Against his better judgement, Jim tampers with a hibernation pod to wake up fellow voyager Aurora.
What Jim has done is slow murder. Aurora, like Jim, will surely die before reaching their destination but she thinks it’s malfunction that woke her up, and doesn’t suspect Jim. After Aurora comes to terms with this unexpected turn, she accepts her fate and over time, grows fond of Jim until the bartender spills the beans and man, is she furious.
This sci-fi romance adventure hybrid has an intriguing premise. I was hooked from the beginning, and I kept waiting for the movie to take me somewhere surprising. Morten Tyldum’s direction is an expert tease, along with Thomas Newman’s score heightening a sense of mystery, tinkling away, the occasional crescendo, repeated notes, hinting at something hidden, a plot turn, a grand revelation. What arrives after all this build up is a load of space rocks that threaten to rip the starship apart so our couple, not on speaking terms at this stage, must work together to save all the sleeping passengers.
A movie with essentially only two cast members (Martin Sheen’s supporting role is small, Laurence Fishburne’s is even smaller, and Andy Garcia’s appearance lasts all of two seconds) relies heavily on casting. Chris Pratt, or should I say, Chris Bland, still gets a job as leading man despite lacklustre performances in a few blockbusters. As an actor he has no presence or charisma. Jennifer Lawrence has little to do given her considerable talent seen in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and in particular, Winter’s Bone. This is a criminally under-written role for what's she's capable of.
The direction and screenplay does not offer much scope or place reasonable demand on them as actors. It’d have been a test on their calibre had the movie gone in a different direction to explore the consequences of Jim’s existential angst, to involve the audience in a conversation about eternal loneliness, companionship, love and guilt. Instead, the story veers away to become a minor action adventure, a disaster for the couple to overcome to save the ship.
In the end, Passengers doesn’t live up to the promise and fritters away a simple but elegant premise by throwing a grenade into the third act. Bang! An action-packed rescue exploit takes Passengers off course into a black hole where movies go to die.
If there’s a reason why Jim was woken up, it’s not a philosophical one. There is no greater mystery to be solved. It is simply a malfunction. That Jim and Aurora become the saviour of a shipload of people gives the story a force-fed syrupy conclusion.
What is not addressed is the moral question hanging in the air. The happy ending is the consequence of a selfish act. Is this the message that we take away – that it’s okay because Jim’s cruel action (knowing full well that it means death to Aurora) turns out to be something good; that if Jim hadn’t woken up Aurora, the whole ship would be doomed in the end? But the crux is: Jim didn’t know it. He didn’t wake up sleeping beauty so they could try to save the ship much, much later. He woke her up because he needed a woman.
Passengers bears some clear parallels with Titanic, featuring a guy from third class and a girl from first class on a distressed ship. In this version, the ship survives and the couple live happily ever after. If you look beyond the couple’s pairing, the story is not really a romance. It’s about a man’s heartless and inhumane act because he can no longer stand to be alone. He’s reached the edge of his humanity and decides to select a woman and sentence her to death because he has this illusion he could fall in love with her. The movie doesn’t address any of this and instead sails through uncomplicated narrative territory, bypassing any turns that might make it a more interesting, challenging and compelling ride.
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