Is there anything that can make us dislike Chris Pratt? He's so charming all it takes is a smile to brush aside that a lot of his characters tend to be rough around the edges, if not morally dubious altogether. Turns out the answer is "No", there isn't anything that can make us Chris Pratt, and the evidence is in Passengers, the long-delayed sci-fi romance that pairs him up with someone we also can't get enough of, Jennifer Lawrence. For Pratt's character, a lonely mechanic stuck on an interstellar voyage, does something that we will find reprehensible, and yet by the end we are cheering for him to have the happiest of endings.
Unquestionably, how much weight one puts behind Pratt's mechanic Jim Preston and his indefensible actions will determine the level of enjoyment. For me, Passengers is the most purely enjoyable sci-fi movie of the season. It's not Arrival, which tickles the brain in ways few movies can, but Passengers has an undeniable cool factor and a pair of stars in a romance hotter than a thermal reactor.
In the works for a decade by Prometheus scribe Jon Spaights, Passengers once was a starring vehicle for Keanu Reeves and either Rachel McAdams or Reese Witherspoon. Fortunately that version never came about; nothing against any of them. But we would have been denied the pleasure of spending two hours marveling over the chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence. He plays Jim Preston, a voyager on a starship making a 120-year journey to a faraway colony to build a new life. The hyper-slick spaceship is pummeled by debris and undergoes system-wide failures, waking Jim up from cryosleep 90 years too early. The opening moments show Jim going through the 12-steps of grief in rapid succession once he realizes he's the only one awake. At first he has fun enjoying all of the pleasure ship's many luxuries, which include hanging out with the ship's chatty android bartender (Michael Sheen). The loneliness hits soon after, along with the realization that he will spend the next 90 years alone, dying the same way.
A cure for loneliness does emerge, though, and it involves Aurora (Lawrence), another passenger awoken early. Together it's up to them to figure out what caused the ship to malfunction otherwise they and the 5000 sleeping passengers are doomed. You won't be surprised to learn that they begin to fall in love along the way. How could they not? What other choices are there other than the robot who pours drinks? Fortunately, the film gives us reasons that Jim would love her other than just being the only female not in a hibernation pod. She's a writer whose father was a famous author, and this journey was supposed to be her way of finding a great story to tell. Jim does more than just fall for her looks (I'm sure that didn't hurt), but he loves the way she writes and tells stories. And Jim is an affable, goofy guy who is both fun-loving and clever. The way he asks her out on a date is perfect, given their current predicament.
But then there's that decision Jim made that colors the whole thing in the darkest shade of grey in the Crayola box. Without giving anything away (Those who followed the film since the beginning probably know it already), this is more than just a story of how two lovebirds came together for the grandest love affair in the known universe. That's just a part of it. There are questions of consent and female agency that are raised, and if there's anything about the movie worth discussing afterwards it's the way Jim is depicted in relation to Aurora. Let's just say there is a major secret brewing between the two of them. We know it fairly early on, and that secret casts an ugly pall over every moment of happiness. All of the dance-offs and basketball games, the cute meetings for breakfast (She's of a higher class than him so she gets the good coffee), and finally the quiet moments where they give in to one another completely…there's a shadow cast over all of it. I think Jim's ethical quandary adds a deeper layer of consideration that makes the film better than the light rom-com it could easily have been content with. And yet, if that's how some still choose to perceive it, Passengers also works that way. Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) keeps the action brisk and his stars flirty, so there's never a dull moment about the slick spacecraft. Pratt is totally engaging in a role that requires a lot of heavy lifting to make Jim a guy we can root for, but he does it. Lawrence has the tougher job, which is moving Aurora past the many heartbreaks and betrayals she faces in a short amount of time. There are a couple of surprise faces that pop up in smaller roles, including the most curious role for Andy Garcia I've ever seen.
The final act puts larger themes aside in favor of straight Hollywood thrill-making. The ship's massive array of malfunctions doesn't really mean much in the overall scheme of things, though. It comes across like a contrived plot device used to distract from the greater source of tension aboard the ship. And perhaps that is what Spaights always wanted for it to be. To be perfectly honest, Passengers would be a much tougher movie to sell if it was just a relationship drama, regardless of its stars. Anybody remember the Solaris remake with George Clooney? Did you enjoy the nap? There needs to be plenty of action for these movies to get made and Passengers has it. The ending will certainly prove as divisive as the rest of it, but ultimately the film rises and falls on Lawrence and Pratt, two people we wouldn't mind spending 90 years trapped on a starship with.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5