By now anyone who's read a few of my posts knows I like sci-fi. Back in the day I was a real Trekkie for The Next Generation. I guess I still am in my heart. That being the case, it should come as little surprise that I would be interested in Passengers, not only because of the setting, but also because I'm attracted to stories that deal with the psychological effects of prolonged isolation (The Martian, Castaway, even Interstellar visited this theme).
Passengers was marketed to look high-adrenaline with the
added twist of there being only two people awake on a ship that won't
complete its course for another ninety years. In reality, Passengers is
slow and reflective, showing how one or two people might live if they
on a luxury spacecraft with no other company and no means of escape,
seemingly to live out their days in isolation. While there are a few
moments of action and suspense, these are not at all defining features
of the movie.
It would pretty much be impossible to delve into this sufficiently without treading on a mild spoiler. That being said, this particular plot point is revealed early in the movie, it's just something they didn't want to ruin in the trailer. So here's your official spoiler warning for this review. The question that Passengers seeks to explore is, when a man is drowning and he pulls someone down with him, although not right, does it make it forgivable because he's drowning? This question is posed early in Passengers, and then spends the remaining 75% playing out the consequences of an individual's choice to pull someone down; namely Jim's decision to wake up Aurora.
Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakes from cryosleep on a luxury space-liner 90 years early, and he's the only one awake among hundreds of other passengers and crew members. He attempts to send a message to earth, but his message won't be answered until long after he's died of old age. He can't break into the room where the crew members are sleeping, and all his hopes of reversing this glitch gradually die away. Days pass, months pass, and despite his efforts to fix his problem, he is alone and will live out his days in this manner long before anyone will ever know what happened to him. Over a year in complete solitude passes, and Jim is still facing living out his life in total isolation, with only the android bartender for human-like company. It's a dismal prospect, and Jim even contemplates suicide after the months he's spent alone. He's truly drowning in an endless, silent depression for which there is no comfort or escape, only the vastness of the universe for him to be lost in for the rest of his days.
In this crushing desolation, he starts to ask himself if he could be forgiven for waking someone up; someone in particular. In the year of loneliness, Jim falls in love with one of the passengers, Aurora, destined to wake up on a new planet in 90+ years. He reads her writings, watches her interviews, and laments that the perfect woman is within his reach, but he'll never meet her unless he does the criminally unthinkable, which he eventually does.
Hollywood is no stranger to taking unsavory but physically attractive characters and romanticizing their heinous depravity, whether that's eroticized abuse, stalker-like behaviors disguised as protective and dedicated, unhealthy obsession, or any number of other deviant vices. However, Passengers doesn't condone or romanticize Jim's decision, and he does face consequences (though perhaps not in the way that critics would have hoped). The gravity of Jim's actions are by no means skirted over simply because he's good-looking. Passengers labors to clearly demonstrate Jim's compromised mental state from his prolonged isolation. He agonizes for weeks before the crushing darkness of space finally wears him down and he tampers with Aurora's cryosleep pod, causing her to wake up. Jim fully comprehends the implications of what his choice would mean for this woman, understands the life he would be condemning her to without her consent, but he's also grasping for his own reason to live. And without any company, there's no one to tell him how bad an idea this is. Later in the movie a character observes of Jim's actions, "the drowning man will always try to drag somebody down with him. It ain't right, but the man is drowning."
The setting of space is a tricky one, being both beautiful and mysterious, but also dangerous and ominous. In one particularly emotional scene while Jim is still alone, he dons a spacesuit and goes outside the spacecraft to float, tethered to the ship by a long leash. Surrounded by the majestic beauty of space, its infiniteness, vastness, and splendor, he can't celebrate it, can't share it, and can't escape it. He just drifts, encompassed by the dark and silent universe, literally tied to a place where he will live and die alone in a seemingly endless nothing where no one is even awake to care. His eyes fill with wonder, and then with tears as he takes in the great emptiness around him and inside him. It's a beautiful, stirring moment woven with melancholy music and executed with pristine attention to the complexity and despondency of Jim's emotional state.
Any time a movie takes the bold choice of being carried by a skeleton crew of actors, it offers a rare but risky opportunity for the actors to show what they can do on their own. In the case of Cast Away, The Martian, or Gravity, the actors captured copious amounts of critical praise, and even the attention of the Academy. Passengers doesn't quite reach that level, but it would be unfair to imply that Passengers was made up of mediocre acting. For Jennifer Lawrence, she is at that peak of popularity wherein she can hardly do anything wrong, and she's already proven herself to be capable of demonstrating a broad spectrum of emotions. For Chris Pratt however, I've wondered if he's truly versatile, or if he's another Tom Cruise who will play the same type of action hero again and again and remain absurdly likable, but not have a particularly diverse body of work. Well, while his true element is still in humor and lightheartedness, he actually does a more than decent job with the drama. Ultimately I think that audiences will prefer Pratt as Star Lord (Guardians of the Galaxy) and in similarly cocky roles (like Magnificent Seven), but he is at least capable of going deeper.
All that being said, to imply that Passengers is an especially deep movie might be overdoing it, but it's a more thoughtful piece than the promos would have you believe. While there are certainly moral and ethical questions raised by the uniquely designed circumstances, the story is more dedicated to the relationship than the heavier themes. Just as well, too, because spending too much screen time exploring such ponderings would make for an exceptionally dull bit of entertainment. The inevitable romantic relationship that develops between Jim and Aurora is fun to watch unfold, even if entirely predictable, as is the devastating fallout when Aurora learns the truth of why she is awake. Side note, at one point, Aurora's rage brings her to almost killing Jim in his sleep, but she refrains. I'm tempted to think that had she followed through with this act, an interesting and horrible cycle would have been born wherein eventually the loneliness would overwhelm her, and she would wake up someone else, causing the pattern to repeat. Thankfully this isn't what happens, and Jim is not bludgeoned to death in his bed (though the movie labors to highlight how much he would have deserved it).
Passengers hits an odd mark as entertainment goes, and my enjoyment in the movie may have been greatly due to having such low expectations based on the poor audience reception. Yet the theater audience was no doubt expecting a much higher level of action rather than drama. With that kind of expectation, Passengers is painfully slow and plodding. But as a drama, it works well enough. A masterpiece it is not, but it isn't trying to be. In some strange way, Passengers has a self-awareness about its ambitions and stays within them. It doesn't try too hard by pushing heavy-handed dialogue, overdoing the special effects, or trying to hide the convenient steps taken here and there. I don't know how much re-watch value Passengers would offer, but it is definitely interesting, enjoyable, and offered some interesting discussion afterwards about situational ethics.