Almost the entire reason for science fiction is to imagine the unimaginable. The idea of traveling to different planets or solar systems is something that’s beyond even theoretical possibility, so it’s up to our storytellers to take us places where we never thought we could go.
In the case of Passengers, that’s onboard the Avalon, a space cruise liner containing over 5,000 people in a state of hibernation, destined for an inhabitable planet in a far-off galaxy that will take the ship 120 years to reach. The perils of space, including an asteroid field, cause the ship to start to malfunction, leading to one of the passengers, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), being woken up 90 years too early.
Preston, a mechanical engineer by trade, is forced to fend for himself for over a year before another passenger, writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), is also woken up. With seemingly no hope, they do their best to survive day-to-day, commiserating with android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). But when the ship’s functions continue to go downhill, they must try to save the rest of the passengers using their combined knowledge.
Directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and written by Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange), the film is a great blend of sci-fi and humanistic ideas. The filmmakers must make the audience believe in both the practicalities of this specific kind of space travel and the budding relationship between Jim and Aurora. It’s somewhat of a tenuous balance, but because the film is free from any side stories, Tyldum and Spaihts are able to successfully flesh out both sides.
The most important aspect that they’re able to get across is the terrifying experience of being alone in space. While Jim and Aurora don’t live in constant fear, the specter of things that could go or are going wrong hangs over everything. This includes the idea that even if they’re successful in saving the ship, they’ll likely die many years before the ship reaches its destination.
The top-notch set design and special effects abet the film’s atmosphere and thrills. If you’re going to be stuck by yourself somewhere, you want it to be aboard the luxurious Avalon, with its pool-with-a-view and cool spacewalk, among many other features. Nearly everything the camera focuses on is fantastic yet realistic-looking, a testament to the detail-oriented work being done behind the scenes.
The film is so high concept that coming to a perfect conclusion would be tricky. Being charitable and non-spoiler-y, let’s just say that the ending that was chosen is a bit of a mixed bag. After spending almost two hours laying out an effective story, the filmmakers rush the last five minutes, bringing up things that need much more explanation than what is given. It doesn’t ruin the rest of the movie, but it diminishes it to a degree.
You’d be hard-pressed to find two actors better liked these days than Pratt and Lawrence, and pairing them together is a slam-dunk. Their characters experience huge swings in emotion, and both actors handle each change with aplomb. This is par for the course for the Oscar-winning Lawrence, but Pratt is every bit her equal, especially impressive since he spends a good portion of the film alone.
Unlike other, headier sci-fi films, Passengers doesn’t hold a ton of surprises, but it has more than its fair share of excitement, intrigue, and romance. And you could do a lot worse than spending two hours being entertained by Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.