“Passengers” is a more enjoyable ride than expected…

***** Asteroid-sized SPOILERS ahead; possibly even BIGGER than those already given away in the damn trailers… *****

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Just saw this one today.  My wife and I didn’t have very high expectations based on the decidedly mixed reviews and mediocre buzz.  Kind of a shame, because this was a surprisingly good science fiction/romance/adventure movie.   Personally I’m okay with heaping helpings of romance in my action adventures, so long as the romance is told honestly and the actors deliver.   In the case of “Passengers,” I’d say it succeeded on both fronts.

The story is pretty simple, and the gist of it is easily gleaned from the ‘gives-too-much-away’ trailers (a common malady in filmgoing these days).

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In an unspecified future, a giant luxurious colony starship Avalon is en route to the distant planet Homestead II with a shipload of 5,000 would-be settlers and crew in hibernation for the 120 year (one-way) trip.   As the ship’s meteor shield is bombarded, a few smaller meteorites slip through, causing a series of malfunctions; the first such malfunction causes a random passenger, mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), to revive some 90 years  from the ship’s destination (and 30 years out from Earth).   Essentially stranded in deep space.   Too far for rescue, or even practical communication with the ship’s Earth-based ‘customer service’ hotline (a nice gag that anyone who’s called ineffective tech support can relate to).

After a year alone on the spacious but sterile vessel,  Jim is driven nearly mad with loneliness with only a mechanical bartender (Michael Sheen) for company.  The scenes of Jim talking to the ship’s bartender are an obvious homage to “The Shining” (1980), where Jack Nicholson talked to a ghostly hotel bartender during his own descent into madness.

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Jack Nicholson chats up spectral barkeep Joe Turkel in 1980’s “The Shining.”

Upon learning the basics of tethered spacewalking outside the Avalon, Jim begins to contemplate suicide in the vacuum of space.   He then comes to the decision, which he agonizes over committing to, of reviving another passenger; specifically a passenger he is growing increasingly infatuated with via her records,  journalist Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).   He knows that awakening her based on his own needs is hideously selfish, and will condemn her to his current existence as well, but as later noted, “A drowning man will try to take down the person next to him.”   It’s a desperate act of a terribly lonely person.  So he revives Aurora and lies to her about what prompted her awakening.   After some initial shock and denial on her part about their situation, the two of them begin to adapt to life together within the massive luxury starship.

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At this point, the movie begins to have a little fun with the ‘two people stranded on a desert isle alone’ concept.   We the audience vicariously share in their fun of of having whole luxury ship’s restaurants to themselves, going for tethered spacewalks together, taking swims in a clear-bottom swimming pool overlooking a sea of stars, etc.   This was the most enjoyable act of the film for me because of the wish-fulfillment aspect of it.   Who doesn’t entertain a ‘two people alone on a desert island’ fantasy now and then, right?   In this case, it’s not a desert island or even a post-apocalyptic Earth overrun by zombies, but a massive, hi-tech city in space.   And the two of them are not really alone either, since there are literally thousands of other people aboard…but they’re all ‘off-limits.’

Their romance intensifies…

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… and is soon shattered as Aurora learns the truth about her ‘accidental’ revival.  There is a justifiable sense of shock and deep betrayal on her part.  Her life that would’ve been was essentially sacrificed because he needed company (!).

Such betrayal is a typical-enough beat in a traditional ‘date movie’; the point where the two romantic leads hit a horrific bump on their road to would-be bliss.   And it would feel cliched here too, were it not an intrinsic and organic part of the story.  Not to mention that Lawrence and Pratt also bring much heart to their performances.  This is NOT some syrupy, half hearted, by-the-numbers Jennifer Aniston rom-com.

A third person is eventually revived (accidentally) as well, as the ship suffers an increasing barrage of malfunctions ranging from incidental to critical.  The new arrival is (luckily) one of the ship’s crew, chief Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishbourne), who is able to give the two passengers access to the ship’s vital systems in an effort to figure out what’s wrong.   He also acts briefly as de facto relationship counselor.   The man wears many hats…

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As the ship’s malfunctions grow more and more dangerous, the three of them are united to try to find the root cause.   Jim and Aurora now have to work together in an effort to save themselves and the other 5,000 passengers and hundreds of crew members still helpless in hibernation.   It’s both a race against the clock and a reconciliation.

The climax of “Passengers” has a bit of a ‘must stop the warp core breach’ feel to it, but the emotions on display are fairly honest, and the action is entertaining.

Speaking as an amateur space geek, the science of “Passengers” is somewhere between “Star Trek” and “Gravity” in its realism.   There are nods to real physics, such as when the ship’s gravity cuts out; although tears in zero gravity are once again done wrong (they don’t stream down one’s cheeks; they pool and blob out in front of one’s eyeball).  Other nits are to be found here and there as well, such as the mechanical bartender saying he prefers the term ‘android’ but later refers to himself as a ‘robot.’  However, none of these really popped me out of the movie, and most are fairly easy to forgive.

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Not quite as clever as “Interstellar” “The Arrival” or “The Martian”, but solid and enjoyable all the same.   Certainly a better film than the negative buzz and backlash prepared me for, and well worth a look for most science fiction fans hungry for a non-franchise film that doesn’t involve superpowers or capes.

“Passengers” owes more to the power of its two star leads than to the power of any stars in space, but it’s still a worthwhile trip.

 

 

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