You may have noticed that Hollywood doesn’t really make traditional “romantic comedies” any more.
Oh sure, there’s the occasional film that tangentially fits the bill. But say, Annie Hall? When Harry Met Sally? Hell, even the likes of You’ve Got Mail—these are the types of films that are no longer being made in 2016, at least by major studios. As a single word of explanation, they’re just too sincere for the Tinder generation, and that’s coming from a Millennial who met his girlfriend on Tinder. Multiplex audiences are both too cynical and too accustomed to genre crossovers to accept a simple romance, unless that movie is also a prestige drama or liberally dosed with a twist of action, science fiction, apocalypse fiction or superheroes. Straight “romance” is now the stuff of indie filmmaking. And that’s how we end up with the likes of Passengers.
We end up with Passengers when a room full of executives experiences a collective, earth-shattering orgasm at the realization that they get to produce a movie with a Chris Pratt/Jennifer Lawrence “sex scene” in it. Unfortunately for them, the film feels like they settled on the actors playing the leads before they’d ever taken a gander at the script…presumably because they were still in shock from the aforementioned moment of ecstasy, which must have been powerful indeed, and resulted in some serious clean-up.
Passengers plays like a film whose script was picked from a pile and deemed “acceptable,” as long as Pratt and Lawrence were there to star. “Nobody’s gonna care about the story,” you can practically hear an oily haired, clichéd producer caricature saying. “We got stars in this picture, young man. Mostly nude stars!”
This is an actual poster for the film. They legitimately thought that the two stars in it were the only thing necessary to put on the poster.
And yeah, you can’t fault legendary Old Hollywood producer Oily McShifty on that point. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence may be the single most bankable male and female stars in Hollywood right now, and certainly among the most generally well-liked. It’s a testament to how badly flawed this script is that you could take the natural likability of this pair and find a way to make both of them repellent, or at least maddeningly artificial. In a movie tightly focused on two human characters, Michael Sheen’s android bartender often seems more real than either of them. It’s especially surprising that this is ostensibly the result of a Jon Spaihts script that has been in development for 10-plus years at this point—how could such basic character issues go unaddressed for so long? Or does this final product bear little resemblance to the original story?
Chris Pratt plays Jim Preston, an engineer who has paid his way aboard the transport ship/space ark Avalon as it cruises a lazy, 120-year voyage to the colony planet Homestead II. After the ship encounters a bit of trouble en route, he’s accidentally woken from hypersleep 90 years too soon, and left completely alone on the massive ship. Quickly realizing the predicament he’s in, and prevented from returning to suspended animation by Almighty Plot Necessity, he wanders the ship, drinks too much, eats junk food and never gains a pound, because this is what we call “soft sci-fi,” and it stars Chris Pratt. You don’t just stack on those Star Lord abs and then let them melt away for a movie the caliber of Passengers.
Jim is understandably depressed by his new lot in life, and what seems like a fruitless eternity of trying to get help. These segments are eminently watchable, and one can’t help but empathize with Pratt, whose puppy dog expressiveness and “aw shucks” demeanor have gotten him where he is in the industry today. It plays like one of those Twilight Zone episodes (there were a lot like this) where someone travels to a town/returns home, only to find that everyone has gone missing. Unfortunately, any sense of mystery or intrigue is jettisoned into the empty vacuum of space as soon as it’s time for Lawrence’s character to enter the story.
Here, I must acknowledge that one major spoiler is inbound. I apologize, as I typically believe that it shouldn’t be necessary to include specific plot points to review a film, but for Passengers this single plot point (which has been entirely, deceptively hidden in all the marketing materials/trailers) is key to the entire presence of Jennifer Lawrence in the movie, and one can hardly evaluate the film without getting the reader on the same page. So if you want to be totally unaware, skip the bolded section.
Important spoiler in the following paragraph:
It’s understandable that the studio wants audiences to have no idea that Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora (just like Sleeping Beauty, hur hur hur), isn’t awake by random chance, but by Jim’s design. Lonely and contemplating death, he literally falls down next to her hibernation pod and begins obsessing about her at first sight. From there, it’s just a matter of time until she’s been awakened to join him on the ship as the Eve to his Adam, effectively condemning her to 90 years with a man she’s never met. It’s intensely creepy and voyeuristic, and even though Jim does the requisite agonizing over his choice, he still goes through with it. With no reason to think that she’d ever be interested in him, and no intention of ever revealing his role in her awakening, he begins a long-con to sleep with Aurora. And that’s really the heart of the film.
And honestly? That’s not a bad set-up for some powerful storytelling: science fiction with a touch of mystery and paranoia. How far will Jim go to maintain his duplicity? The entire film could be a valuable critique of male entitlement, as it ruins the life of the film’s only female character.
Except wait, we don’t get any of that. Instead, the second act of Passengers makes an abrupt tonal deviation into the land of romantic comedy, and any interesting discussion of morality in Jim’s choices are quickly swept under the rug. It’s as if the first act was just an inconvenient necessity to get into the producers’ concept of the real movie, which is Pratt and Lawrence canoodling in space. “Thank god we got those tedious ideas out of the way,” you can hear them saying. “Now there’s more time for Chris Pratt’s butt and J-Law’s bathing suit.”
The problem is that neither Jim nor Aurora are real people, or anything even close to real people—they both fail the uncanny valley test, and badly. Jim, except for his one theatrical choice to screw with Aurora’s life, is engineered to be selfless, sweet and sincere in every other way possible to show on screen so the audience will immediately desire for him to be forgiven for an act that might well be unforgivable. Aurora, meanwhile, has literally zero negative qualities of any kind—at least from the perspective of Jim and the male audience. She’s gorgeous; she’s funny; she’s smart, but not too smart as to threaten Pratt’s role as the only one with any hope of fixing their ship as it starts to deteriorate. She’s also not so smart as to question his unspoken sense of entitlement that they’re obviously meant to be together. Even after things inevitably sour in their relationship when the truth comes out, it’s 20 minutes before she’s again saying things like “Come back to me; I can’t live on this ship without you!”
And that’s what dooms Passengers in the end: Each of the three acts demands that you immediately discard the previous one. It’s 30 minutes of a science fiction movie, followed by 45 minutes of romantic comedy, followed by 30 minutes of action movie, and each is a step down from the previous. By the time we get to the big swells of tender music in our conclusion, eye-rolling has become mandatory. The film banks upon you being touched by a big, emotional payoff that is in no way earned, making the assumption you’re only there in the theater because you couldn’t stop gazing longingly at the two beautiful faces on the poster above.
Passengers gives those two one of the more engaging science fiction settings in recent memory, but when a studio looks at the results and sees only “actors” rather than “characters” as its selling point, this was bound to be the result.
Director: Morton Tyldurn
Writer: Jon Spaihts
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Release Date: December 21, 2016
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter.