No one said space travel would be easy, much less falling in love on a remote journey across the galaxy, or fixing a failing ship. But the new interplanetary action romance “Passengers,” buffed to a high-tech gloss by “The Imitation Game” director Morten Tyldum, takes an intriguing construct about existential loneliness among the stars, and introduces a moral peril it has no interest in treating intelligently or realistically, despite the presence of two capable leads in Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.
That leaves the rest of the movie with an unwelcome thematic stain regarding issues of male captivity fantasy and victimization, and it makes the heroic derring-do that dominates the second half ring laughably hollow. After the dramatic heft that expensive entertainments “Gravity” and “The Martian” so thrillingly offered up about humankind and the cosmos, “Passengers” winds up a thoroughly misguided rocket to nowhere.
At launch, though, and as the narrative from screenwriter Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange”) approaches cruising altitude, “Passengers” shows imaginative promise. A human-free prologue (with appropriate titling) introduces us to the Avalon, a starship ferreting over 5,000 hibernating passengers and crew members on a mass migration to a newly colonized planet. When a tiny meteor in a massive field penetrates the ship’s protective shield, warnings go up, but they’re seen by no one, since everyone is asleep and in pods.
Then one capsule, housing mechanical engineer Jim (Pratt), mysteriously opens, triggering a hologram welcome protocol that mistakenly assumes everyone else has been awakened as well, and that landing is imminent. Yet as Jim learns after wandering around this luxury liner of a transport vehicle, he’s completely alone, roused too early, and only 30 years in on a 120-year journey. Oops!
As an unwitting stranded traveler, Pratt makes for a charming solo act as Jim takes in the Avalon’s amenities — an elitist coffee dispenser (only gold-star passengers get lattes), an android bartender (Michael Sheen on third-wheel autopilot), basketball and video game dancing — while working out the fact that he’ll be spending the rest of his life in suspended isolation. Pratt brings affectionate humor to these early scenes that portray an existence hemmed in by automation and disembodied voices. Only a space-walk sequence meant to evoke wonder and crushing solitude is ruined by the hokiness of a single rolling tear, flashy camerawork and Thomas Newman’s intrusive music score. Tyldum is no Alfonso Cuarón, it seems.
But the real problems come when Jim takes a liking to hottie author-reporter Aurora (Lawrence) in that other pod; all he has is archived video and staring at her resting form to go on. With little anguished forethought, he chooses to sabotage her pod, disrupt her hibernation and give himself a smart, pretty, living companion. Yes, in one fell swoop, “Passengers” turns a likable guy into a mild stalker, then a de facto long-game murderer (think about it), and since Jim doesn’t disabuse Aurora of the assumption that her awakening is a malfunction like his, we can add spineless kidnapper to Jim’s list of violations as well.
This is no small ethical-criminal hole for a character to re-emerge from, no matter how tender and winning Pratt is, or how sparkling Lawrence is when bantering with him. When the pair’s closeness turns cutesy, then intimate, “Passengers” treats their sexy coupling, and Jim’s secret, as no different than a Billy Wilder-esque rom-com deception.
But any moviegoer sensitive to the routinely weak agency of female characters in movies is sure to think otherwise. It doesn’t help that Tyldum frequently shoots Lawrence with an almost fetishistic interest in her curves, to the point that even after the cat’s out of the bag — and Lawrence nails Aurora’s initial distress and rage — he cuts from her screaming “You took my life!” to an ogling shot of her swimming in a two-piece. And she swims a lot.
Had “Passengers” openly dealt with the ramifications of Jim’s momentous action, that would be one thing. But instead we get a parade of action-movie diversions: Jim practically receding as a character, a third awakening (Laurence Fishburne phoning in a take-charge captain), the ship’s imminent self-destruction, the ratcheting up of special effects (what gravity loss does to Aurora’s pool alone time), and quid pro quo final-act decisions intended to justify and redeem and just make these two big stars attractive again in our eyes.
The save-the-ship mayhem is not only routinely rendered, but the operatically emotional rehabilitation mechanics are almost comical, and come with more iffy motivations when everything ultimately plays out. Even HAL the computer got more of a chance to explain himself in “2001: A Space Odyssey” than ever gets hashed out here between Jim and Aurora.
Though a queasy mess as a love story, “Passengers” is gorgeous, with rich visual effects ranging from resplendent to amusing, and cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto (“Silence”) that’s never dull despite being mostly shipbound. In other words, as a big sci-fi entertainment, it hardly feels like a movie about the problems of two emotionally desperate people in a crazy situation, and therein lies the problem. Like the omnipresent corporation whose tricked-out vessel offers the slickest of niceties as it goes from point A to point B, “Passengers” is first and foremost a commercial endeavor, and lastly a tale of human malfunction.