How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Passengers
If you’ve heard anything about Passengers, you probably know its story hinges on Chris Pratt’s Jim intentionally awakening Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora from hibernation, dooming her to spend the rest of her life alone with him on a spaceship, and proceeding to lie to her about it. From that it wouldn’t be a stretch to surmise the film is sexist and creepy and gross. I’m here to tell you that it’s not. Jim’s actions in the movie are sexist and creepy and gross, but the movie as a whole is not.
A lot of the backlash the film has received doesn't take into account the fact that it grapples with the creepiness and unethical implications of Jim's actions. The film doesn’t deal with those issues particularly eloquently or condemn them as harshly as it should have, but I think the film’s biggest downfall was the marketing campaign that tried to sell it as “Adam and Eve in space.” Creating the expectation for an innocent and mutual love story sets up viewers to be utterly disgusted at the film when they discover that’s not the case. However, Aurora’s untimely awakening isn’t a twist. In fact, it unfolds transparently as a natural element of the plot, one that’s dealt with deftly. It is an undeniably creepy action, and the film treats it as such. There are moments when the creepiness is seemingly forgotten, including a pretty clear case of Stockholm Syndrome, but everything else leading up to and following the creepy act does a really good job at showing the motivations and, more importantly, the implications of the act.
None of the people I’ve talked to who’ve said the movie is gross and bad have seen it. (Given its box office numbers, that may not be surprising). All the people I’ve talked to who have seen it share my opinion that it’s no masterpiece, but is still an enjoyable ride. Granted, all of them, like me, knew about the potentially problematic plot point before viewing. I think it makes sense that so many critics have taken arms against the film, given how distasteful the story must feel when the expectation is for pure romance, as the marketing campaign suggested. But if you take issue with the film without having seen it, I think you should watch it and see for yourself.
When taken at face value, Passengers has a fair share of both shortcomings and redeeming qualities. The setup is preposterous, but beyond that it has an interior logic that holds together quite nicely. The film also does a terrific job of establishing the vast and isolated settings of space and the eerily deserted cruise-ship-esque vessel, with atmospheric sound and stunning visuals. Thomas Newman’s score also helps it along here, vaguely reminiscent of his work on Wall-E.
The screenplay is something of a mess, with a lot of great ideas but an unfortunate slew of problems, including numerous cliches and jokes that don’t land. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence can’t save their characters from the dullness of the script, though they come close. Michael Sheen is so utterly convincing as the android bartender that I still keep forgetting there was even an actor in that role. The story is genuine and interesting, but many moments feel artificial. Luckily, the most crucial dramatic points in the film are conversely dynamic and affecting, save for some parts of the climax, where the film devolves into full-on disaster movie.
Passengers isn’t a great film. The screenplay has too many ambitions that are never realized. It wants to be charming and funny, and it’s not. It wants to be sexy and romantic, and it’s not that either. However, it also wants to be a thrilling and psychological space epic, and that’s where it succeeds. Sure, it lacks the taut and emotional brilliance of Gravity, the mind-bending epic magnitude of Interstellar, and the wit and precocity of The Martian, but its striking aesthetics and engrossing story make it a worthy entry into the genre.