Part Robinson Crusoe meets Titanic in space (and yes, I know that Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a thing), director Mortden Tyldum’s Passengers is an intriguing film, even if it never hits any heights of supersonic excitement.
Written by Jon Spaihts, the luxurious starship Avalon is carrying 5,000 people to a new colony planet where they will begin a new life. They and the crew are in hibernation pods, as the trip takes 120 years.
But when one of these pods malfunctions, 90 years from journey’s end, mechanical engineer Jim (Chris Pratt) finds himself awake, with just a droid bartender for company.
And that doesn’t seem to be the only technical glitch. A year on, with the ship’s systems experience more and more problems, Jim is joined by Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), with neither of them able to return to hibernation.
Here we get a touch of Titanic, with Aurora travelling first class and Jim in a subsidised – his skills are in demand – starship version of steerage.
But when a third person wakes as the malfunctions increase, that’s when the trouble really begins.
Lawrence and Pratt make a good and enjoyably watchable team here and the film carefully eschews any clunky stereotypes, allowing plenty of time to develop character and situation.
That’s almost as much a downfall as it is a benefit: this is a picture that can, on occasion, seem to drag, yet at the end, the viewer is left with themes that have been worked hard enough to intrigue, from the nature and affect of loneliness to the limits of AI-human interaction (and therefore the nature of humanity) and a sort of Dorothy-in-Oz question of what you really want from life.
Sumptuous to look at, the glossy, hi-tech, sleekly-designed appearance of the ship itself, together with its sheer size, adds to the sense of human isolation, along with a beautifully-realised idea of the vastness of space.
Michael Sheen as Arthur the android bartender and Laurence Fishburne as Gus, the third to wake, add nice cameos that help develop plot and the relationship between our central protagonists.
Some critics have complained about the ethics of a key element of the plot (I’m not giving that plot device away here), but the complaints seem a tad forced, since the question concerned is hardly played for over-simplicity and certainly far from ignored.
One hopes we’re not going to see sociological analyses of all forthcoming releases, from Assassin’s Creed (spoiler alert: likely to include some killings that are Not Very Nice) to Despicable Me 3 (is Gru really an appropriate parent for three small girls, once of whom is clearly from a different ethnic background to him?).
Tedious it may seem, but it seems boringly necessary to remember that Passengers is, after all, a piece of entertainment and certainly no more morally dubious than most other entertainments around if one starts playing such a game.
So, while it’s certainly no masterpiece, it is a pleasant and interesting enough way to spend a couple of hours.