Passengers – Review (** 1/2)

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Drinking game idea: do a shot every time someone says “passengers”.

Likely to be remembered as one of the 2016’s weirdest and most disappointing tentpole releases – and proof that you can’t just slam two attractive, popular actors together and expect mesmeric results – Passengers offers up stylistic treats alongside an oft-tone deaf narrative that’s ultimately more unsettling than romantic.

The Starship Avalon is transporting 5000 passengers from Earth to another planet, Homestead II, and as the journey takes 120 years, the colonists are placed in hibernation for most of the duration. However, a series of events causes two passengers, Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), to be woken up 90 years early. With seemingly no way of returning to sleep, the pair seem doomed to live out their days together, unless they can find a way to fix the damaged ship.

Passengers has so many ingredients for a successful film; two entertaining leads who can easily juggle a film mostly between them, strong production design, impressive visual effects, a talented supporting cast (including Michael Sheen as the ship’s android bartender, Laurence Fishburne as an officer of the ship, and, um, Andy Garcia), and yet, as ever, it comes down to the script.

The premise is an easy hook and it’s easy to see why Columbia Pictures jumped in with both feet for this one; you’ve got your existential drama, your romance, and with a ship that doesn’t seem so stable, even some sci-fi thriller/action elements too. It is a film clearly designed to appeal to a lot of people, but in doing so many have jettisoned the very basics of humanity that an audience will respond to.

Less shrewd critics will talk about a certain revelation that, while obscured in the movie’s marketing, was actually announced as part of the original synopsis. Marketed as a twist but actually happening in the first act of the film, it creates an uneasy air that, with more nuance, the film could easily have confronted head-on and come out smiling. Instead, Passengers becomes a discomforting study in toxic relationships and the people who stay in them, all the more icky because it wants us to get deeply invested in the oh-so-romantic love between these stars.

That’s probably too much said as it is, but this character through-line infests the rest of the movie and it’s never able to recover, complete with a finale that’s at first generic and then quite insulting. There are other problems, though; Pratt and Lawrence give surprisingly off-note performances here, with numerous unconvincing line-readings a-piece, and Lawrence’s cry-face continues to be unintentionally hilarious, just as it was in the Hunger Games movies. Direction from The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum is also all over the place, often evoking an oddly low-fi TV aesthetic despite the clear money lavished on the production.

With a different approach to its challenging subject matter, Passengers could’ve been a masterful engagement with thorny themes, but instead it fatally miscalculates what humans as a whole can and cannot accept. It is certainly an interesting film, but ultimately feels like a terrific opportunity blown out the airlock.

** 1/2

Passengers is in cinemas now

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