Passengers is not technically a horror film, but that’s the mode in which it would work best. Instead, it's a predictable space-saving drama, one whose big twist is both not so big at all and its ultimate undoing.
It’s hard to talk about Passengers without exposing its marketing’s big secret, but here’s an attempt: Earthlings Jim Preston (Chris Pratt in affectless action mode) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence, the much more convincing star here) set sail for life in space, along with 5,000 other strangers. The journey to their new home is meant to take 120 years, of which they’re supposed to spend all but four months in hibernation. They’ll wake up at their final destination ready to start all over, knowing everyone they loved is gone.
Except Jim and Aurora don’t think they’ll make it that far, because they’ve already woken up — about 90 years too early. They’re the only people walking around this spaceship, dazed and confused, bitter about their fate.
This is not a movie about a lonely death in the vacuum of space, however. The ship’s only warm-blooded bodies fall for each other, of course, yet it’s the circumstance that makes this not romantic, but sinister.
The situation that brings Jim and Aurora together has everything to do with the big twist teased by Passengers’ trailers. You will know exactly why they woke up early within the first half hour, and how you take to the rest of the film is defined by your reaction to that knowledge.
Jim and Aurora’s relationship is unnerving in part because of how impossible it is to sympathize with them. They’re not ditching Earth and every single person who ever cared about them because of some nuclear war or science research: Jim just seems bored, while Aurora wants “a story no one else can tell,” even if that means not knowing or caring for the people she’ll tell it to.
There are few attempts to contextualize these passengers’ selfish decision beyond that, despite there being room to do so. Instead, we’re asked to hang out with a hot guy and girl as they make out all over the empty ship, which they’re only sometimes bummed about being stuck on.
That they have each other — and are both super attractive, as the camera likes to remind us — is supposed to make this slow jaunt toward death worth it. That’s easy to argue against, considering how cold the spaceship is, how sanitized and empty and vast. There’s one other talking body with them, Michael Sheen's android butler, Arthur, but even he’s just a machine like everything else. And even he starts to break down eventually.
Oh, right: Passengers isn’t just about the dream and nightmare of living with one beautiful stranger in the middle of nowhere for the rest of your days. It’s also a vehicle for some tepid space action, as the spaceship begins to malfunction in critical ways. Despite knowing that they’re going to die alone on this ship anyway, it becomes Jim and Aurora’s mission to save themselves and the other sleeping passengers. (To their credit, this is their single selfless pursuit.)
Passengers’ slow-burning action actually works better than its romance, even if it lacks much excitement. That’s because the awful secret that begat Jim and Aurora’s love is too discomforting to ignore, despite the actors’ chemistry.
It’s Jim who’s the secret-keeper, and Passengers is told mostly from his perspective. Unfortunately, he’s also an impossible character to root for. For all of her selfishness, Aurora is a bit more sympathetic: She’s the one whose dreams were at stake, whose family and friends figure into her life. That she woke up on this ship way too early means an end to everything she’s worked hard to accomplish. Jim has no similar motivations — plus that deep, dark secret — so watching him forge ahead on the empty ship is way less entertaining.
But even Aurora is really just a vessel for some big set pieces. It’s nice to see that Jennifer Lawrence continues to have a career in action movies after X-Men and The Hunger Games, even if she’s mostly the damsel in distress in Passengers. When she does rise to the occasion, she’s strong and smart and convincing. Chris Pratt, on the other hand, is sleepy to an almost sociopathic level.
If you’re able to look past the disturbing impetus for Jim and Aurora’s intergalactic love affair, Passengers may sit better with you. Whichever way it strikes you, though, their premature death sentence is pretty terrifying and totally bleak. It’s Passengers alone that doesn’t seem to realize that its interesting, horrific premise is undermined by its troubling twist.