Length: 116 mins
Writer: John Spaihts
Dir.: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Sony Pictures is an odd beast. Even for a Hollywood movie studio, it makes some very strange decisions – and I’m not just talking about their infamously bad network security (dated hacking joke). If you look back over their cinematic output over the last few years, what you see is a small number of genuinely great films (e.g. Skyfall, The Social Network, Looper) buried beneath a sea of schlock and Adam Sandler movies. Of course, every studio has made miss-steps – Warner Bros. still can’t figure out how to make comic book movies for example – but Sony’s hit/flop ratio is seriously unbalanced. As far as I can see, there are three reasons for this: 1) They option bad movies to begin with – like I say, every studio picks a bad project from time to time, but Sony seems to do this way more often than the other studios. 2) They meddle with the movies that they do option – again, most studios seem to be doing this at the minute… which is weird because studio pressure has seldom made a movie better. And finally, 3) they release films at really stupid times. Those last two points are particularly important here – Passengers suffers greatly from the studio tacking on a generic action ending, and from being released about a week after Rogue One. Neither of those things was a good idea.
It’s a shame really because the movie has a decent enough premise. The story focuses on Jim Preston (Pratt), a passenger aboard a corporate colony ship bound for a new world. Due to a technical fault with his hibernation pod, Jim awakes midway through the journey – a good 90 years before the ship is set to arrive at its destination. Alone and unable to return to suspended animation, Jim slowly starts to go mad, becoming obsessed with another hibernating passenger- the stupidly named Aurora Lane (Lawrence) – and eventually makes the rash decision to wake her up, effectively dooming her to share his fate. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that there is something seriously wrong with the ship and it’s up to them to save the day. The film has an interesting visual style, good pacing, and performance wise everyone is on top form.
Despite being in the movie for all of 10 minutes, Fishburne does a decent turn as Commander Plot Point or whatever his name was – all the more impressive because he very easily could have phoned it in. Michael Sheen is fantastic as the android barman and gets some of the best lines. I’m on the fence about Jennifer Lawrence usually, but she gives a stellar performance here, particularly in the second act. The real stand-out for me, though, is Chris Pratt -interpretation is heartfelt and nuanced, and it’s refreshing to see him in roles like this.
It’s the story that kills the movie – but it’s not necessarily due to bad writing. Sure, there are some incredibly lazy elements (you seriously couldn’t come up with a better name than Aurora Lane? Really? You name the writer character who Jim wakes up after the princess from Sleeping Beauty and Lois Lane? Come on, man), but the first two acts of the movie are solid, and that was really surprising. Everything from Jim sinking into madness, to waking Aurora from hibernation, their developing relationship and the disillusionment when Jim’s betrayal is revealed – all of that stuff is great. But the ending of the movie totally spoils all the good work of the rest of the movie. It feels so tacked on, tonally wrong and generic that it’s almost laughable. That’s why I personally think that this was down to Sony sticking their oar in, insisting on an action movie ending when it really didn’t suit the movie. The rest of the film is so good, that I doubt that the writer – one Jon Spaihts – could have written an ending that bad… that being said, he was also involved in writing Prometheus, so maybe he did.
Story and tone problems aside, the movie is also quite derivative – it shares similarities with several other movies. There are bits of Wall-E, Moon, Gravity and The Martian – to name but a few – but one of the most direct influences in terms of aesthetics is 2001: A Space Odyssey. The hibernation/cryo-sleep pods, the two trapped crew members, the vaguely similar ship designs – it’s quite clear what the director was going for. In fact, I think the director – Morten Tyldum (who also helmed The Imitation Game and the brilliant Headhunters) – has a bit of a thing for Kubrick generally, given that he somehow manages to sneak a reference to The Shining into a sci-fi movie. In fairness, though, while these references were distracting at times, they feel more like homage than plagiarism.
All in all, then, Passengers is a disappointing movie – but only because it had so much potential to be genuinely brilliant. Great visuals, great performances, great production design – but entirely let down by the generic, empty and hollow action movie ending. Sony could have been onto a real winner here (and they really need a win at the minute), but they made terrible decisions that ultimately spoilt their chances for success. A shame.