There are the makings of a brilliant movie here. A movie about difficult choices, about moral quandaries, and about consequences.
With twenty minutes remaining in its run time, Passengers abandons that brilliant premise and goes all-in for a Hollywood ending, and guts the momentum it spent the last ninety minutes building. It leaves the viewer with many questions, but instead of them being significant philosophical ones, they are about the film’s failure to realize its own promise.
Chris Pratt stars as Jim Preston, a mechanic who left earth for the potential of a new life on a new planet with new problems to solve – his kind of problems. On his 120-year journey, something goes wrong, terribly wrong, and he is awakened from hibernation – 90 years too early.
As if this wouldn’t be enough of a problem on its own, in his endeavors to solve the problem of his early wake-up call, he is also faced with a correlating quandary: he is utterly and completely alone. Despite riding on a ship carrying five thousand passengers and crew, Jim’s was the only pod to open and revive its occupant.
Sure, there are movies to be watched, video games to play, and an Android bartender named Arthur to keep him company. But over time, Jim projects despair as his loneliness overwhelms him. He hits the bottle hard (after all, there’s liquor for 4,999 more people on board) and takes a space walk that nearly results in him re-entering the airlock again without a spacesuit.
Instead, he takes a header in the hibernation bay and ends up prone beside the pod of an attractive female passenger, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). He investigates her further – reading her writing, watching her flight video. He develops a one-sided romance and waxes poetic about her to Arthur. Deep down, he knows he can’t revive her… that would just be wrong.
But would it be that wrong?
This is the central issue the film is at grips with, and it uses most of its run time to deal with that decision and its consequences. As any trailer would tell you for this three year-old film, he does in fact awaken Aurora (get it – Sleeping Beauty?), but hides the intentionality of that event from her.
Where the film makes its missteps are in the final moments, so it is impossible to describe them without SPOILERS.
After the romance blossoms, it is revealed that Jim committed the unforgivable act. Aurora shuns him. However, Jim and Aurora face Events Outside Their Control that put the ship at risk, and requires them to work together to resolve the crisis (and also requires a non-essential bit part from Laurence Fishburne). The solution puts Jim’s life in danger, and eventually leads to him taking another spacewalk, and this time returning posthumously without choosing to do so.
A stronger, better movie would have left Jim dead and put Aurora in the same position in which she verbally crucified Jim for having made the wrong decision. She would have had to also grapple with whether a lifetime of solitude was tolerable, given the potential for companionship being so near at hand. A conclusion to such a film could have been cathartic (watching her mournfully revive another wayward soul) or ambiguous (leaving her staring longingly at potential mate’s hibernation pod in a fade to black). Either would have had far more impact.
Even in the context of the chosen denouement, some kind of acknowledgement on the part of Aurora that had she not been awakened, everyone would have died would have been a helpful element of the resolution. There’s a hint of it there, but it doesn’t seem that Lawrence’s character registers that. It is about the only subtle moment in Morten Tyldum’s direction of the film, so it doesn’t seem purposeful.
Instead, we get a sickeningly saccharine climax in which things are tidied up with a neat bow and everyone feels good about what happened. The moral choice posed to Jim is negated by a Hollywood ending that makes it a choice of convenience instead.
And another promising opportunity for landmark science fiction is wasted.