Monday, January 2, 2017
The adventurous science fiction romance “Passengers” (** OUT OF ****), starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, contains an initially appetizing premise. An enormous spaceship carrying 5000 passengers and a crew of 250, all of whom are asleep in hibernation pods for the 120-year journey through space to colonize another Earth-like planet, encounters complications with an asteroid field and a malfunction opens one of the pods. Our unfortunate hero awakens to find himself alone aboard the spacecraft with luxurious accommodations and recreational facilities, but he cannot resume his sleep no matter what he tries. Imagine being trapped all alone aboard a vessel reminiscent either of Douglas Adams’ novel “Starship Titanic” or Grant Naylor’s novel “Red Dwarf” cruising on auto-pilot through the icy desolation of the galaxy with nobody to turn to for relief and assistance. No matter what he does, our hero cannot get a response from anybody about his ordeal. Moreover, he won’t interact with another human until the ship enters orbit around its destination in 90 years! Indeed, the only thing that he can do is share his anguish with an oblivious android that mixes alcoholic beverages behind the bar and indulge in the recreational outlets aboard the ship. “Imitation Game” director Morten Tyldum and “Prometheus” scenarist Jon Spaihts synthesize the classic films “Sleeping Beauty” and “Titanic” in this promising ‘what-if’ scenario, but the characters aren’t as compelling as the life and death crisis with which they must contend. Chiefly, Jennifer Lawrence’s highly-strung, leading lady spends more time screaming than scheming, while the Chris Pratt hero tangles with a fate so tragic that he conducts himself in an ethically compromising manner that haunts him. Some of the obstacles that they confront are genuinely exciting, but “Passengers” amounts to a thoroughly predictable yarn riddled with plot holes that neither Tyldum and Spaihts nor Lawrence and Pratt can triumph over in this 116-minute, PG-13 rated opus. Ultimately, when you consider everything that everybody could have done to improve this flawed film, it is really a shame that “Passengers” doesn’t live up to its potential.
Basically, “Passengers” reminded me of those adventures that intrepid pilgrims embarked upon to enter a promised land for a better life. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt of “Guardians of the Galaxy”) is a middle-class, mechanical engineer who cannot find his fortune on a vastly overpopulated planet Earth, so he books passage aboard the lavishly appointed corporate ferry Avalon for a faraway place designated Homestead II. There are two things that you should know from the outset about “Passengers.” First, this sci-fi saga occurs so far into the future that all the guess work in space travel appears to have been accounted for by scientists so that nothing can possibly go wrong. Second, our hero and heroine don’t contend with menacing alien creatures out to make a meal of them. Humanity is the only race that inhabits this half-baked escapade that wears out its welcome long before the Avalon reaches its destination. During the first 30 or so minutes, Jim Preston struggles to amuse himself aboard this spectacular spaceship. Some things about the craft are really cool. As it plies its way through the universe, this sophisticated, state-of-the-art spaceship has been designed to travel on auto-pilot with a huge, invisible shield deployed like a huge nose-cone to deflect anything perilous in its path. The asteroid field that it smashes its way through during the first few minutes evokes memories of “Titanic,” but the toll that the asteroid field takes on the Avalon doesn’t create problems right away. After he awakens, Preston takes advantage of all the opportunities that the ship offers. As it turns out, the hibernation pods are scheduled to open during the last leg of the voyage, with the crew awakening months prior to the passengers so they can prepare them for disembarkation. When Jim isn’t floating in alcohol, he tries to break into the bridge where the crew sleeps. Meantime, Jim browses through the passenger database and finds Aurora and admires her in her translucent hibernation pod. Eventually, about a year later, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games”) joins Jim, and the fate that they are facing horrifies her. Jim has done everything that she suggests later to extricate them from their predicament.
Initially, like all romantic movies, time takes a toll on Jim and Aurora’s relationship, especially the conditions that prompted their rendezvous in space. We learn Aurora is a writer who wants to experience life first-hand on Homestead II and then return to Earth so she can write the first book about the experience. Unlike Jim, Aurora purchased a higher priced ticket and enjoys all the features of a first-class passenger. You can see the resemblance between “Passengers” and the Leonardo DiCaprio & Kate Winslet “Titanic.”
Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt generate enough charisma to make a sympathetic couple. Nevertheless, they can only do so many things before “Passengers” exhausts its spontaneity. The closest thing to another human is friendly android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen of “TRON: Legacy”) that polishes glasses, mixes drinks, and listens to them. You can figure out where “Passengers” is bound with its cliché-riddled ‘boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back’ plot. Once Jim and Aurora have broken up, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that something bigger must happen for them to repair the damage to their relationship. They must reconcile themselves and then figure out how to repair the catastrophic damage to the Avalon as it steadily deteriorates because of the asteroid field encounter. Lawrence and Pratt are more interesting than the one-dimensional characters that they portray. The arrival of another character to straighten things out doesn’t really help matters in Spaihts’ by-the-numbers screenplay. For the record, Hollywood has been struggling to develop this project for about a decade. Initially, Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon were cast to play the two lovers, but scheduling difficulties derailed that enterprise. You won’t get carried away with “Passengers.”