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By Nguyen Le · December 24, 2016
“Passengers” has fail-safe written all over it: two of cinema’s “it” people in the leads, with an Oscar-nominated director guiding them and a screenplay with enough legs to break free from development hell. But alas, rarely has a film with so much going for it been so disappointing.
Talk about a soul-crushing theater experience in which the only thing comparable is the plight of mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) — a passenger on the luxurious starship Avalon who has woken up 90 years too early. Unfortunately, exactly why he has opened his eyes so much earlier than the 4,999 people destined to populate the Earth-like planet of Homestead II is revealed after the opening titles fade out, which immediately demystifies an issue that the majority of the promo material has centered around. It’s frighteningly relatable to see Pratt do his spin on “Cast Away” aboard the ship, visiting new areas until he is pummeled by the realization that he is not where he should be.
As viewers are still trying to orient themselves, like Jim, in this new world, the scenario remains gripping – right up until writer-journalist Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) is also jostled out of hibernation. This encounter also kick-starts “Passengers”’ dip in quality. Following the path of Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied,” here we have two of cinema’s recognizable names in a love story so rigid and telegraphed that the romance is never believable.
Jon Spaiths’ screenplay has an almost-autocratic governance on the narrative beats that prevent Pratt and Lawrence — performers whose charm oozes when they have some freedom to express their characters’ emotions or in delivering lines — to create an organic sense of affection. With heavily manufactured passion and interaction, a film with romance as its spine won’t function regardless of who are in the lead roles.
Try Pratt and Lawrence did, nonetheless, to make a star with all the dust they are handed. Pratt awes in moments where Jim is alone, ramping up his “Affable Joe” aspect rather than the blockbuster hunk caricature in “Jurassic World.” Lawrence delivers her golden self when Aurora lets her emotions loose, but it feels like more than a few star-dates before such a moment arrives. Other than that, viewers will spend most of the time questioning why the actress seems a tad disengaged from what’s going on.
Maybe she too is disheartened by the story’s bewildering third act decision to drop all the ethics, the moral dilemmas to bolster an unsurprising “love-in-jeopardy” scenario. Whereas the setups of the “romance” and of the Avalon’s decline are measured, the film’s conclusion is abrupt and shockingly unfulfilling.
Here, instead of “Passengers” becoming more poignant and using its finale as a means for paying off its gripping setup, there is a rush to get to Imagine Dragons’ new song and the accompanying nebula-laden credits.
Solely as a visual experience, “Passengers” is poised to claim awards. Guy Hendrix Dyas’ immaculate design of the Avalon and its quarters is the swankiest starship — or prison — in recent memory, complete with a virtual game room, arboretum, reaching-toward-space swimming pool and, most notably, an art deco-inspired bar where a chirpy android, Arthur (Michael Sheen being genuinely charming, which is scary considering the best performance comes from a non-human character), tends.
With that beauty, it’s easy for pro cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and composer Thomas Newman to sprinkle their talents on the production, but the latter’s work — a mix of “Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E” and “Road to Perdition” — could have been less incessant.
In a film where things fall apart (in more ways than one), “Passengers” does muster a collective jolt of excitement in a stellar set-piece where Aurora experiences zero gravity while swimming. This is the only time where director Morten Tyldum fuses unpredictability, if just in bits, into the proceedings, and otherwise it’s a rather static leap from event to event like “The Imitation Game” (only without Benedict Cumberbatch’s intensity and Graham Moore’s keen scribing)