It’s becoming rare these days to find block buster science fiction films that focus more on the characters and setting, than just an all-out battle of world ending proportions. Preferring to focus on deadly alien invasions set to wipe out the planet, ala Independence Day: Resurgence, Edge of Tomorrow and Pacific Rim, intergalactic war, such as Rouge One: A Star Wars Story and Star Trek Beyond, or our own technology turning against us in ways we couldn’t possibly have planned for (I’m just saying, a contingency plan would be nice), also known as Terminator Genesys. We seem to have an innate fascination with our future being a dark and an almost dystopian wasteland, brought about by our own stupidity. Films that focus on humanity thriving are surprisingly hard to come by in the 21st century, especially ones with big name actors, set to make millions at the box office. In a world where Superhero movies rule the box office, and film makers are focusing their films to work on an international level, particularly the Chinese market, character driven sci-fi is a welcome breath of fresh air.
The focal point of Passengers is the characters themselves, and a single moral choice. The Star ship Avalon, carrying over 5,000 passengers in cryosleep, suffers a malfunction during its 120 year journey to the newly colonised planet of Homestead II. While the ship remains on course, a single passenger is awoken 90 years early with no hope of re-entering cryostasis. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) has to come to terms with the lonely existence he finds himself with, and choses to make the most of his situation, but when he falls in love with Aurora (Jenifer Laurence), a woman still in cryosleep, he is faced with an irreversible moral choice. Does he remain alone, and let her sleep, or wake her up, and doom her to the same fate as his? The moral question at the centre, is one that the viewer will no doubt have an opinion on, and will affect how you see the film as a whole.
The chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence is well founded, with both actors playing off each other well, but their actual relationship in the film raises a question. Do they actually love each other or are they only together because they are the only two people. They both frequently state that they would probably have never met under regular circumstances, with both their career and social standing being diametric opposites.
The manner to which both characters initially deal with the situation you find yourself in, is quite powerful, dealing with the realisation that the life they knew, and the one they had planned was over, the desperation to fix the problem at hand, and how they come to terms with it, are all handled well, showing a somewhat different response from both characters. How differently the situation effects both characters.
The android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen), provides a wonderful, almost deadpan at times, counterpoint to both Jim and Aurora, as someone who is serving his purpose while doomed to the same fate as them, he is unable to leave the ship, and has no destination to arrive at. When discussing death with Jim, he points out that androids are doomed to die as well, they cannot run forever, just as humans do.
Visually, the film is stunning, the design of the ship, while reminiscent of some earlier designs (the somewhat cylindrical shape does bring to mind evolutions of 2001), is easily recognisable, giving the film an iconic image for viewers to latch on to. The general layout of the ships decks and halls, brought to mind films such as WALL.E. and specifically Moon, a film that Passengers seems to take a large amount of inspiration from story wise, particularly when dealing with the topic of isolation and loneliness in space.
How the film sits with you in the end, does very much depend on your views regarding the moral question. Your answer to the question, will colour how you see the character of Jim, even if only marginally. The weight of his choice is the films driving force, even beyond the films destructive climax. Aurora’s character is even somewhat named for the situation Jim finds himself in, Aurora, the princess of Sleeping Beauty. A welcome break from the popular science fiction films of late, but the films enjoyment as a whole is heavily subjective, providing possibly hours of discussion with other viewers just on the films question. However, the films third act feels almost tact on, as though the studio worried that a film focusing solely on a moral choice, was not enough to bring in the general public. Needing a climactic life or death situation to bring the film to a close. I feel that, while the film was far less successful at the box office, the director and writer should have taken a cue from films such as Moon and Gattaca. Providing us with a conclusion based on the characters as a whole, rather than just a Hollywood, disaster driven finale.
Further Recommendation: Moon (2009)
Passengers (2016) is available for pre-order on DVD and Blu-ray on Amazon.