It’s been an up-and-down year for science fiction at the cinema – while we’ve seen brilliance in Arrival, we have also faced middling fare from Star Trek Beyond and Midnight Special. While both of these films have their fans, they can hardly be considered unanimously well-received – and it’s not hard to understand why. Sci-if is extremely hard to get perfect – and while some franchises such as Star Wars have really cemented themselves into our psyches and into pop culture, they too have not hard the perfect ride. Rogue One, the most recent Star Wars release, isn’t perfect – but compared to Passengers it at least has strength in its plotting and story structure.
Passengers focuses on two such passengers – Jim and Aurora - who find themselves woken up several years too early on a 120-year journey to a new planet, with a sizeable chunk of civilisation along with them for the ride. But why have the pair been woken up? What other problems could be facing their craft in the interim? Will they be able to solve such calamities before they reach the other side? When the craft starts to put the legions of those kept on board at risk, it’s a race against time to make sure that the vehicle can reach Homestead II, where the population is set to re-emerge in under a century’s time. It’s this that drives the central tension of the movie – but sadly, the plot gives away far too much of the mystery early on for it to continue to engage.
It’s been rumoured that a certain plot point raised early in the film was originally saved for the final act – and, on the face of it, it may have been a wise move to have left it where it stood. Passengers is a great-looking movie that certainly benefits from great set design and visualisation – and, too, benefits hugely from having two of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the forefront of the production. Pratt and Lawrence have great chemistry – and this is of course testament to their individual talents – but, sadly, it is Passengers’ script that lets them down.
This is a film that has plenty of big ideas and a clear vision in mind, but uses them in a very strange fashion – at times it feels rather pedestrian, willing itself to continue rolling when it could be building tension, revelling in what is a rather intriguing premise. From trailers, it seemed curious – a two-header of a movie with a huge mystery at its core, fronted by two able stars and impressive, teasing visuals to boot – meaning that the final product falling so flat on its face feels all the more disappointing.
Passengers - Official Trailer (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
The film’s main problem, in a similar way to problems that Collateral Beauty faced, lies within the claims that the trailers made – there are certain elements to Pratt’s character, and his side of the plot, that are hidden from sight in the promotional material, and as such, the first act is something of a revelation to viewers expecting a rather different story. To many, including myself, it was something of a rude awakening – the presumed premise and pledges made by the trailer, including those of a stirring and intriguing mystery, are rather deflated by the story choices made early on.
The movie is largely saved in terms of watchability by the chemistry of its leading pair, and of the impressive sets and visuals – as the script tends to dwindle into rather derivative and safe sci-fi territory once we reach the third act. Certainly, it’s the chemistry that helps us at least care about the characters – as the dialogue, occasionally trite and less than challenging, fails to inspire the movie to be little more than another sci-fi brick in the wall. Certainly, it’s a movie that’s up against stiff competition – Star Wars is very likely to steal the box office gold from under this film’s nose – but, at the same time, its clumsy plot and half-hearted execution late on do little in its favour.
Passengers is by no means a bad film – as stated, it suffers from similar problems that Collateral Beauty – but it rises above that screenplay and execution slightly by not being insulting to its audience. At the same time, however, it’s still a product that’s been mis-sold – if the twist that emerges early on had been left to late on in the game, there may have been more opportunity for tension, for conflict, and less dependence upon tried-and-tested sci-fi territory that it swings into in the late throes of the script. Essentially, while it’s lovely to look at, and while everyone involved is superbly talented and does their absolute best, it’s nothing to write home about – and is therefore all the more disappointing.