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Passengers Movie Review

Passengers (2016) movie poster Passengers

Theatrical Release: December 21, 2016 / Running Time: 116 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Morten Tyldum / Writer: Jon Spaihts

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Aurora Lane), Chris Pratt (Jim Preston), Michael Sheen (Arthur), Laurence Fishburne (Gus Mancuso), Andy Garcia (Captain Norris), Emma Clarke (voice of the Avalon)

Passengers looks like a fake movie that would feature in a satire of what Hollywood movies are like these days. Here, you get the attractive and in-demand lead actors of six of the biggest science fiction films of the decade starring in a two-hander as the only people awake on a spaceship in the future.

Should you find that prospect overwhelmingly mainstream and commercial on paper, you've got Morten Tyldum, Norway's Oscar-nominated director of The Imitation Game at the helm. Tyldum adapts to the material, rather than bringing a touch of prestige to this. As mainstream as entertainment gets, Passengers is light on art but big on entertainment.
Looking to extend his blockbuster streak, Chris Pratt plays Jim Preston, a mechanic from Colorado who is one of 5,000 people traveling on the starship Avalon to get to Homestead II, a distant planet now open for colonization. The only problem is Jim is awoken from suspended animation 90 years before he is supposed to be. With everyone else still defying aging in their sleep chambers, Jim is free to roam the ship and take in what it has to offer. He quickly makes a friend in Arthur (Michael Sheen), an android bartender who is anthropomorphic from the waist up and the closest thing to an awake human Jim can find.

If you were forced to spend your lifetime in solitude, the Avalon looks like one of the better places in which to do so. There is a basketball court (well, only half, strangely) with a scoreboard. There is a virtual reality dance competition game. There are plenty of food options, prepared and served by robots. There's a swimming pool with a view of the cosmos. And should you want to get a closer look at the galaxy, all you've got to do is strap on a spacesuit and be tethered in for a relatively safe and positively breathtaking excursion.

"Passengers" stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as the only people awake aboard a starship of the future.

Still, after a fast-forwarded year of living like this with no foreseeable way of getting back to his controlled sleep, Jim longs for company other than the whiskey-slinging Arthur. He sets his sights on Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer from New York whom he acquaints himself with via her passenger video profile (one of a number of conceits the plot demands). After debating with himself and with Arthur, Jim decides to tinker with Aurora's chamber to awaken the, um, sleeping beauty who he thinks could be the love of his life.

Bonded by their unusual predicament, the two good-looking people quickly hit it off and develop feelings for one another. Aurora even begins writing a piece on her fellow awoken passenger. It all seems pretty terrific and even better than Jim could have imagined, until Arthur's loose lips sink the 'ship. While these lovers go from hot and heavy to feuding, the movie quickly diverts our attention from that to more tangible conflict. Things on the Avalon begin malfunctioning. A crew member (Laurence Fishburne) becomes the third person onboard awoken. But robots keep breaking down and soon the ship seems to be facing impending doom.

I guess the film does try to explain what is going wrong, but it all just seems like noisy nonsense designed to jeopardize our two romantic leads. It provides conflict and resolution, both of which easily amount to the film at its very worst. By this point, you've already invested in the universe and story, so you don't mind as much that the climax is kind of cringeworthy.

Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) and Jim (Chris Pratt) enjoy drinks and conversation with android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen).

There is no getting around that Passengers is popcorn entertainment for the masses. Guardians of the Galaxy was smart and funny. Most of Lawrence's big movies have also had an intelligence and weight to them.
By contrast, this one makes Jurassic World seem almost heady. The movie opens strong, hooking you with its premise of Pratt as the only living thing awake on this spaceship. His dilemma over whether or not to wake a fellow passenger is genuinely intriguing. But from there, the movie relies too heavily on formula and convention, never winning you over with romance, hasty fallout, or the obligatory action that a space setting requires.

This is not Gravity. It's not Interstellar. It's not Rogue One. This is sleek, effortlessly watchable fare. You can pretty much turn off your brain after Aurora is awoken and still follow and be reasonably diverted. The obvious scapegoat for the movie's shortcomings is screenwriter Jon Spaihts, who picks up his fourth credit here, following The Darkest Hour, Prometheus, and Doctor Strange. Before any of those, Spaihts' script showed up The Black List of popular unproduced screenplays back in 2007. In early 2013, it was acquired by The Weinstein Company, with Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon attached to star and Irish TV director Brian Kirk ("Game of Thrones", "Penny Dreadful") pegged for the helm. Obviously, that would have been a very different film, not the $120 million Sony production that is opening days before Christmas in over 3,000 theaters.

Spaihts' script is easier to take to task than the actors, who look great in the futuristic outfits provided to them. Lawrence is less compelling and convincing than she ordinarily is, but the project is clearly beneath her usually high standards. This is a very teen-oriented movie that will not challenge them to think in the way that the Hunger Games and X-Men movies do. It might move teens, if they buy into the romance and can overlook or make peace with the largely unexplored Stockholm Syndrome aspect of the plot. But adults who have been exposed to far more entertaining and intelligent science fiction may well be underwhelmed and understimulated. It remains to be seen whether Tyldum is a true talent or he just had the fortune to direct a good, remarkably awards-friendly drama in The Imitation Game.

Sony has struggled at the box office for a number of years, taking losses on aspiring tentpoles and even seeming crowdpleasers. With its nine-figure budget, Passengers needs to be a big draw just to break even. That it opens just a week after Rogue One gives it stiff, direct competition as well as unfavorable comparisons critics will find hard to resist making. Lawrence's unprecedented star power seems to have stalled a bit with the somewhat disappointing final two Hunger Games movies and the latest X-Men. Pratt's drawing power is impossible to gauge since his biggest hits have been much bigger than him. The two of them and the high concept should be enough to sell a good number of tickets from now through New Year's Day. But negative reviews and iffy word-of-mouth from adults will probably keep this movie from approaching the stratosphere of each actor's biggest hits. And, in case it isn't clear, despite the Christmas week opening, this is not a film with real awards potential beyond a slim chance of cracking one of the technical categories (it is one of ten shortlisted for the Oscars' five Visual Effects nominations).

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Rogue One La La Land Lion Doctor Strange Collateral Beauty Moana Fantastic Beasts... Why Him? Hidden Figures
Gravity Interstellar Sunshine WALL-E The 5th Wave Ex Machina The Darkest Hour
Chris Pratt: Guardians of the Galaxy Jurassic World The Lego Movie Her Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence: The Hunger Games: 4-Movie Collection X-Men: First Class Silver Linings Playbook American Hustle Joy
Laurence Fishburne: Contagion Man of Steel 21 | Michael Sheen: Midnight in Paris

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Reviewed December 21, 2016.

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