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Bad Trip

Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence
Columbia Pictures
 116 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  Morton Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt

The cinematic universe dominated by Star Trek and Star Wars conveniently overlooks the laws of physics in favor of interstellar space vessels that travel from one galaxy to the next in a few CGI-animated seconds of “warp speed.”  The reality of interplanetary travel will be far more mundane, however. It takes months, if not years, to reach even the next closest planet, while interstellar travel requires decades or centuries. Further, assuming that crews are awake all that time, the vast majority of these voyages will be utterly mundane, boring, and ultimately depressing.


So, it’s no surprise that the number of films that try to accurately depict the actual physics and psychology of space travel is quite small, with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey heading the list along with Ridley Scott’s entertaining The Martian. Now, director Morton Tyldum, best known for his Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, wants to join that select company with his new film Passengers, but the director’s inability to settle on the exact type of movie he—or the studio—wanted proves to be a considerable stumbling block.


Passengers takes place on a giant interstellar space ship, actually, more of a luxury cruise liner, some 30 years into a planned 120-year voyage that is taking 5,000 passengers and 250 crew members to help colonize a distant planet. In order to survive the trip, the passengers and crew are in suspended animation. Actually, 4,999 of the passengers are in suspended animation, as a computer mishap accidentally revives one of them, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). Jim, a mechanical engineer, spends the first few months of his awakened state exploring the ship, entertaining himself with the variety of games and diversions available and striking up an acquaintance with Arthur (Michael Sheen), a perfectly mannered robot bartender.


After a year or so, Jim runs out of things to do and realizes that there is nothing he can do to change his fate. Eventually, he decides he needs a companion and, after checking out the life stories of many of his fellow passengers, decides on Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist who only planned to spend a year on the colony planet before returning home to recount her story. Jim does not tell Aurora what he has done, instead claiming that her awakening was a similar accident, and, she eventually winds up falling in love with him. But that relationship abruptly hits the skids when Arthur accidentally reveals what Jim did, and Aurora lashes out at him, refusing to talk to him any more.


The marketing of Passengers neglected to mention how Aurora came to wake up, instead playing up the film’s romance while hinting at the action sequences that occupy the last half hour of the movie (the ship has sustained some very serious damage and is in desperate need of repair). That’s understandable, but the dilemma that Jim faces is exactly the sort of moral and ethical question that the best science fiction raises. Jim faces a situation that’s beyond anything we can imagine in our real world, and the screenplay by John Spaihts essentially asks the audience to put themselves in his shoes and contemplate what they might have done. In a way, it’s an outer-space version of Beauty and the Beast, with Chris Pratt an extremely handsome Beast.


Many critics have savaged this film for portraying Jim Preston as anything other than the sort of sick creep who locks women in underground bunkers for years. By so doing, however, they miss the point of the script. The film’s entire premise is that Preston isn’t some twisted sicko but an average (at least by Hollywood standards) guy, who gradually and after considerable soul searching, makes a decision that dooms another person to share his fate. In actuality, we know how we think we would react in such a situation, but, like any life-or-death crisis we may face, we never actually know until we are confronted. Sadly, it’s far easy to project our own actions when we have never been and know we will never be faced by that situation.


While I admire Passengers for raising the moral and ethical issue, I also hat the fact that the script never shows us the eventual outcome of Jim’s decision. Instead, it adopts the hoary old plot device of putting the characters in danger, knowing that they will put aside their differences for the greater good. I suspect the film put the characters in danger because it was a $100+ million holiday release that the studio felt had to be something bigger than an independent character-driven film that could have easily been made on 1% of the budget. The end result is that the film cops out of showing the actual consequences of Jim’s decision in favor of tossing a few million dollars of effects money around.


The action sequences in Passengers are a mixed bag. There’s one great effect in which Aurora finds herself trapped in a swimming pool when the ship loses its artificial gravity and she is unable to swim out of the water that encircles her. Beyond that, however, it’s just the same sort of space action we’ve seen before, coming down to a race to throw a key switch before it’s too late and an outside-the-ship rescue mission of the type Gravity handled so much better. None of this material is bad, but director Tyldrum fails to make it stand out in any way.


Passengers is blessed by the presence of Jennifer Lawrence, one of our best young actresses, in a role that capitalizes both on her beauty (we can easily visualize Jim or virtually any man fantasizing at length about her). In addition, the movie takes some clever jabs at the aspects of technology that keep malfunctioning to Jim and Aurora’s dismay, and a class system on the ship that keeps feeding Jim cold cereal for breakfast while first class passenger Aurora gets gourmet meals. The film also gets good mileage out of having Jim try to analyze the programming algorithms of the ever-so-polite android bartender (who explains that he’s always cleaning glasses, even though he has no customers, because it makes people more likely to confide in him).


Passengers does a lot of little things right in much the same way that Stanley Kubrick satirized corporate culture and thinking 50 years ago in 2001. If it jettisoned the action sequences and concentrated on providing a credible resolution of its primary plot point, namely how Jim and Aurora’s story would play out in the absence of an artificially generated emergency, it could have been a great example of speculative science fiction. As it is, however, Passengers becomes nothing more than a passable romance highlighted by a not-quite-as-passable action sequences. This is one film where moviegoers will want to disembark the ship before the final reel.

In one of the film's best effects scenes, Jennifer Lawrence experiences gravity failure while underwater.

Read other reviews of Passengers:


Passengers (2016) on IMDb