The last time director Morten Tyldum plundered the Black List for Alan Turing-based thriller The Imitation Game he wound up with eight Oscar nominations. It makes sense, then, that he would return to Hollywood’s list of the best unproduced screenplays for his next effort. But while Passengers can be wondrous to look at and is gamely played by its two charismatic leads, this tale of literal star-crossed lovers fails to make a lasting impression.
Screenwriter Jon Spaihts’ (Doctor Strange) intriguing premise transports us to an unorthodox setting aboard the Avalon, a luxurious spaceship twirling through the cosmos on route to colonise a new planet. The 120-year journey is disrupted by a violent meteor strike that fries the ship’s systems and causes two passengers (Chris Pratt’s Jim and Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora) to emerge from cryosleep 90 years early. Faced with the prospect of spending the rest of their lives alone in space, the two space travellers draw closer together as the Avalon spirals towards catastrophe.
If that all sounds a bit like Titanic in space, it’s entirely intentional. References to James Cameron’s epic romance are numerous: Pratt’s mechanic and Lawrence’s renowned author are initially divided by class; a sweeping spacewalk conjures images of Jack and Rose ‘soaring’ on the prow; and, much like the nautical tragedy, Passengers’ early love story gives way to disaster as the Avalon’s systems begin to fail.
Despite some uncomfortably clunky dialogue (“If you die, I die!”), Jim and Aurora’s romance stays just the right side of schmaltz. Pratt and Lawrence give magnetic performances as the two leads, his lightly goofy charm and her dry wit making for a winning combination as Jim and Aurora convincingly seduce each other over time. Though their relationship lacks friction early on, that’s swiftly rectified as the story unfolds to bring the darker themes of greed and betrayal into play.
It helps, too, that their courtship plays out against such a beguiling backdrop. The impressively designed Avalon has a familiar near-future aesthetic; all sleek white surfaces and transparent computer screens. It even has an amusingly literal android in the form of Michael Sheen’s unnerving bartender, who injects a welcome third perspective to proceedings. Tyldum also pulls off some spectacular set-pieces, including a particularly stunning sequence in which an artificial gravity-malfunction turns the ship’s swimming pool into a giant, floating sphere that is quite literally breathtaking.
So why does Passengers fail to satisfy? For all its visual splendour and wistful charm, there’s very little in this tale to truly set pulses racing. The problem is that every part of this story has been told before. The influence of everything from Romeo and Juliet and Gravity to Alien and 2001: Space Odyssey is keenly felt throughout but hardly any thing feels fresh or invigorating. It leaves the plot feeling functional rather than bracing, much like a long-term relationship: everything seems to be running smoothly but we need a sense of something unexpected to give it an added spark.
Passengers fails to deliver any thing out of the ordinary and as a result it’s merely an enjoyable voyage that leaves only a fleeting memory.
Runtime: 116 mins; Genre: Sci-fi; Released: 21 December 2016;
Director: Morten Tyldum; Screenwriter: Jon Spaihts;
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne