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PASSENGERS Asks an Interesting Question It Isn’t Interested in Answering (Review)

PASSENGERS Asks an Interesting Question It Isn’t Interested in Answering (Review)

Editor’s note: This review contains potential spoilers for the movie Passengers. If you wish to go in unsullied, then just wait to read it until after you’ve seen it.

Like a lot of the best science fiction films, Passengers is founded on a single, somewhat simple philosophical question—and an interesting one at that: If you were stranded alone on a desert island, as star Chris Pratt pontificates early on in the movie, and you had the power to strand someone else there with you, would you? In Passengers, the desert island is a commercial spacecraft on a century-long journey from Earth to the newly colonized Homeworld II. Wishing power falls in the hands of Pratt’s character Jim, who is awakened from hypersleep 90 years too early and grapples the decision to awaken one of his fellow cruisers—one cruiser in particular, actually—to stave off his suffocating loneliness.

The familiar moral quandary is made all the more interesting through a modern lens, armed with an appreciation for the nuances of consent that may have evaded earlier generations of viewing audiences. As such, it isn’t that Passengers is treading in delicate territory that ultimately undermines its premise—on the contrary—but the fact that it doesn’t trust its central big thinker to keep its movie afloat from beginning to end.

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The film is at its best when Jim, one scraggly beard’s worth of time following his untimely stirring, is first entertaining the pros and cons of the big question. As a sharp but somewhat goofy everyman, Jim spends the first chapter of the movie bounding from confusion to desperation to hedonistic glee and back again before sincerely engaging with the possibility of forcibly waking up another passenger. His choice: Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, whose over-the-top given name—especially in contrast with “Jim”—matches the accompanying personality that Jim learns about through her video files.

Really, Passengers doesn’t do much to assure us that Jim is endeared to Aurora for any substantial reason other than that she’s the first attractive woman that catches his eye; that he insists to automated pal, robo-bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) that she’s “perfect” for him is never ostensibly reconciled with the fact that Aurora herself, once awakened, thinks of Jim as someone she’d never otherwise end up with if not for their unique circumstances.

Once Jim makes his decision, a plot turn that should by all accounts infuse the movie with all the more existential consternation, Passengers succumbs to the device that has weighed down far too many a modern rom-com: the question of if and when she’ll find out what he did. Utilizing this unrest as a distraction from the multifaceted conversation begging to be had, Passengers deflates, though not quite as drastically as when it all but abandons its driving conceit altogether in favor of the kind of high stakes third act more typical of spaceship-set pictures.

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While the degradation into a separate project altogether may rob Passengers of its true potential, the nascent stages of Jim battling the big “Should I do it?” and of Aurora struggling with the ramifications of what he very much shouldn’t have done, are not stripped entirely of their intellectual or entertainment value. Early navigation of a substantially realized mechanical world, complete with plenty of interesting luxuries and hurdles, can go so far as to delight in its best moments. A window-side swimming pool with a magnificent view of star-speckled nothingness, virtual reality on-ship amusements, and the all-smiles Arthur bring the Starship Avalon to life.

That said, all this set dressing is ostensibly in the interest of imbuing the central question—and if it seems like I’m beating a dead horse, believe me, it is the lifeblood of the movie for its first two acts, full stop—with a sense of vivacity. When the movie ultimately decides that it’s not that interesting a question after all, nor one all that tough to answer, is when Passengers takes a hard plunge into a narrative black hole.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

2.5 burritos

Images: Columbia Pictures


Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Spend 90 years alone with him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.

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