Passengers has not been getting a lot of love in reviews and conversation. I’m going to buck the trend… though with some qualifications.
What you need to understand going in is that this is primarily a romance, not a big science fiction/action film. It carries the trappings of an action film and the production design is brilliant, but that is all an excuse to have a conversation about the main relationship. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception) deserves an Oscar nod for the level of detail and scope, despite any other issues with the tale.
It is also possibly the largest budget-to-cast film I may have ever seen. There are really only 4 main characters. Chris Pratt (Magnificent Seven) and Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) make a great and inevitable couple. It is also, possibly, one of the flaws… we never doubt they are going to be a couple, and the trailers certainly didn’t help. Part of the issue is that they are both so well known at this point in their careers. Unknowns would have made it difficult to sell the film, but it may have improved it, though it would have had to be done more on the scale of Moon or Ex Machina. But I’ll come back to the challenges on this plot point.
Michael Sheen (The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box) and Laurence Fishburne (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) fill out the cast with two essential characters. Both manage to build memorable characters with relatively little script.
The main failure of this beautiful journey between the main characters (and it is a great date-night romance) lands at the feet of director Morten Tyldum (Imitation Game). The balance of the film is just off. It starts off with a good setup but Pratt’s brand of humor dominates his terror and slow slide into potential madness and desperation that launches the next part of the story. Intellectually we follow the struggle, but don’t really feel it. Because of that, the pivotal moment and the inevitable impact are lost and it just feels like it was dragged out. Once the two are together, there is a great dynamic and chemistry, though again, some of the decision points are a little rushed or short-cutted.
You may have also noticed that writer’s name was familiar. Jon Spaihts is really on a roll this season with two major films on screens at the same time with this and Doctor Strange. They each have their weaknesses, but they are also all nicely character-driven tales that have continued to improve since his initial film, Darkest Hour, through the muddled Prometheus, to this year’s releases. He embraces the genres he writes in without insulting them, though a bit more research on his part would plug some of the holes in his science fiction plots and really take them to the next level.
I admit this isn’t a glowing recommendation, but neither is it damning. Visually, Passengers is stunning. The story and ultimate effect are also solid and fun. The love story is affecting. The science details, well, squint a bit. Way worse has made it to screen and made larger multiples at the box office than this will see. While there is certainly a story here, it is the metaphor and message that are stronger in the end. And that’s OK too. (Yes, I’m a hopeless romantic, what can I say?) It is, in many ways, a big screen film. And though the 3D for some of the shots it is pretty spectacular, it isn’t really all that necessary, so weigh that into your decision if you choose to go.