[Mild spoilers follow]
Walk out of Passengers the moment Laurence Fishburne’s character appears on screen. Leave then, and you’ll have a glimpse of the movie Passengers could have been, a sweet love story with a sinister undertone, a meditation on the danger of solitude, a simple narrative set within beautifully minimalistic sci-fi architecture. Stay, however, and you’ll see the movie that Passengers truly is, a creative mess, a series of decisions that all serve to undermine each other, a cinematic apologist for some of the most repulsive deeds one human being can inflict on another.
As the trailers may have informed you, Passengers tells the story of Jim and Aurora, a couple of Beautiful People who wake up from hibernation aboard what is essentially a luxury cruise liner in space. The trailers may have also pointed out that they woke up 90 years before the end of their voyage, doomed to live out the rest of their days in transit, destined to die before their final destination. What the trailer conveniently left out of this admittedly sweet conceit for a date-night movie is that only Jim’s pod malfunctioned. Out of loneliness he woke Aurora up, effectively murdering her, earning her trust, and raping her by deception.
As horrible as his actions are, that dynamic is one of the film’s greatest assets. Near the end of the second act, when Aurora inevitably finds out (that’s not a spoiler; did you really think she wouldn’t?), Passengers elicits the best and most complex performances that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence have ever achieved (yes, comparable to Silver Linings Playbook from Lawrence).
Admittedly, Lawrence overshadows Pratt. This is hardly surprising, considering she has an Oscar on her shelf and Pratt’s acting history is comprised mostly of goofball-typecasts. But the fact that he’s able to keep up at all is, in itself, impressive. He’s out of his league here, in more ways than one.
Their immense talents compensate for a lack of natural chemistry, and the movie largely feels carried not only by their skills, but on the charm of their only companion, a gentlemanly robot bartender played by Michael Sheen.
But then Larry shows up. His character, more bland and lifeless than the ship’s Roomba-esque vacuum cleaners, seems to exist only for two purposes: 1) Expand Jim and Aurora’s access to previously closed-off rooms of the ship, and 2) try to wipe the narrative slate of Jim’s crimes. He is the first in a meteor shower of plot devices that bombards Passengers during its third act, transforming what was a decent movie in the vein of Moon into a hollow, badly paced, badly motivated blockbuster. It feels unnecessary, it feels unasked for, and most importantly, the way in which it shoves Aurora and Jim back together for a forced happy ending is distinctly unsettling. Aurora may seem to have inexplicably forgotten what Jim did to her, but we, the audience, haven’t.
At one point during the beginning of the film’s third act, Jennifer Lawrence laments that she’s “stuck on a sinking ship.” She was wrong; by that point, Passengers was already dead in the water.