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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Movie Review: #Passengers

The Sci-Fi/disaster flick Passengers is lost in space.

Review by Matt Cummings

If the Science-Fiction themes present in this year's amazing Arrival were either too much to handle or too boring for you, count on the much sexier Passengers to placate. However, if you've come expecting an effective character drama with high human stakes set to a Science-Fiction groove (basically Arrival), you're in for a disaster-in-space-sized surprise.

The Earth starship Avalon is on course for Homestead II, a colony planet that offers a cheap alternative to the high prices and congestion of Earth. Aboard the vessel, 5,000 colonists and 255 shipmates sleep in cryogenic capsules outfitted for the 120-year sleep to their new home. But when an asteroid storm damages the Avalon, critical systems begin to fail along with those cryo-tubes, opening the single chamber of engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). When he realizes that he's the only person who's been awakened (and has 90 years of the journey left), Jim lives the high life until he begins to go insane from the lack of human contact. Even the android bartender (Michael Sheen) only offers digitized companionship, prompting Jim to make an unexpected decision: he decides to awaken another passenger (Jennifer Lawrence). The two eventually grow close and don spacesuits for romantic spacewalks, unaware of Jim's role in awakening Aurora or that Avalon is slowly falling apart. When Aurora stumbles on the truth, she rejects him and the two enter a coldness worse than space itself. As the systems across the ship begin to fail, Jim and Aurora must put their differences aside to save the mission and its passengers, even if it means making the ultimate sacrifice to do so.

Passengers is a competently-acted and beautifully shot film, but it's also pedestrian, predictable, and skips the best part of the plot for standard Sci-Fi fare. Once the mystery of Jim's predicament is resolved, there's not really much for Director Morten Tyldum and Writer Jon Spaihts to do, except concoct a silly disaster flick where the duo have to forget about Jim's decision. Once the crisis is dealt with, you would expect some sort of conversation to wrap things up, and yet none of that happens. That lack of closure doesn't make for great theater, even though the two shine on screen. They're likable, a bit comical, and effortlessly glide off each other's movements. But Passengers doesn't deliver enough in that character category to keep us from getting lost on the gorgeous sets, including the bejeweled bar and Jim's multi-level bedroom with a view of The Milky Way. Production design here is top notch, including the cinematography by Rodrigo Pietro, who basks our characters in gorgeous starry skies and Lawrence in sumptuous colors. Again, none of that matters in the end, because the film doesn't have the balls to address the elephant in the room: Jim's deception.

For someone who seemed right at home with the terrific character drama The Imitation Game, Director Tyldum strays from his strong suit once Passengers is done pushing Jim's decision to the side. Tyldum's usually all about conflicted characters like these, their motivations and how they change when new data is input. And although some of that does play out with mean looks and angry moments of release, the reveal fails to wholly satisfy. Instead, we're given a big, dumb survival flick where throwing overheated levers is more important than the drama of deception this high. Passengers devolves into that Sci-Fi disaster/rescue, borrowing action ideas from other recent movies like The Martian and Gravity without ever addressing the bigger questions that it so elegantly raises in Act 1.

Still, Tyldum refuses to center the story around an antagonist (unless you count Jim), which gives the film an interesting vibe as there's no one to root against. You can't blame Jim for taking extreme measures to protect his sanity, and even the last-minute addition of a revived deck officer (an underused Lawrence Fishburne) can't set the ship back on course. You only have Avalon and its friendly but ignorant AI to blame, but this isn't the murderous Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, so you're left with a plot that doesn't quite know what it is by mid-Second Act. It refuses to address the most interesting questions about technology and the effects on human nature, focusing instead on Pratt's bare butt and his shag-rific girlfriend. That should draw in some people who like these leads, but any chances for long-term success is probably as fleeting as that distant star to which the Avalon is heading. Boring.

Still, the trio of actors - including the always-excellent Sheen - play off each other quite well, and you tend to forget all of the plot problems with Act 3, which I assume is what Tyldum was hoping. Sheen, another favorite of mine, shines as the happily-ignorant bartender and his interactions provide most of the comical moments. Even a moment with Andy Garcia as a cameo is a pleasure as he and the crew emerges near film's end.

Although Passengers starts out strong, it fades once the most interesting question behind Tyldum's film has been answered. It settles instead on simple Sci-Fi rather than telling a compelling Science Fiction tale about ethical conundrums and the deeper science behind a long mission. Passengers probably wasn't envisioned as a Oscar contender, but the end result is rather empty, entirely predictable, and certainly the least appealing Sci-Fi film of this season. It's palatable but utterly forgettable.

Passengers is rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity and action/peril and has a runtime of 116 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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