To say that a movie has lots of eye candy isn’t necessarily an insult, and Passengers has plenty of it, along with more complex (and often troubling) issues.
Audiences can’t seem to get enough of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, two superstars with unconventional backgrounds in entertainment. At the beginning of this decade, who would have believed that the goofy guy from Parks and Rec and the sassy teen daughter from The Bill Engvall Show (!!!) would end up propping up a big-budget holiday tentpole? Granted, Winter’s Bone showed Lawrence has chops, and Pratt has become a go-to Jurassic Guardian, so it’s no surprise that the studio decided to pair these two for a tale of shallow love in deep space.
The story takes place in the indeterminably distant future with a ship of colonists on their way to a new planet, a new homestead if you will, the inventively named Homestead II. The trip is set to take over a century, but a few decades in, something goes wrong, and Jim Preston (Pratt) is awakened. The first act is a space version of The Last Man on Earth, as this downtrodden mechanical engineer gets used to living aboard what is essentially the ultimate cruise liner while trying to solve his conundrum, mainly that he’ll spend the rest of his life alone on a ship with 5,000 people still in hibernation right next to him.
A year in, things change. After nearly breaking down from his plight, Preston makes the decision to wake up a fellow passenger, Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a beautiful and talented writer, but never tells her he’s the cause of her awakened state. This decision is the moral crux of the movie, and while it drives much of the rest of the action, it is never really fully explored for what it is.
After her initial shock, the two unsurprisingly fall in love. This is all well and good until the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) spills the beans. Lane is understandably shaken. Having the story built around one character unalterably changing the life of another makes this a space-age tale of consent, or the lack thereof. By choosing to “unfreeze” someone he only knows from her sleeping appearance in a hibernation pod and a handful of video interviews she did, the male protagonist here has done what society has too often done with women, treating them like a commodity to be consumed rather than an individual whose sovereignty is to be respected.
Using the word consent here implies something akin to rape, but what else comes close to inflicting upon another person the same situation that almost drove Preston himself mad? That she falls in love with him appears to paper over any sin he may have committed (as does him later saving the day when the ship is threatened with destruction). None of that negates his decision to pluck her out of her own narrative and place her into his far more troubled one. It’s a heavy topic dropped into a lightweight movie.
The life they lead on the ship is fun to watch, but a later appearance by Laurence Fishburne feels like the most deus of machinas. Passengers is a mixed bag, but should play well with holiday audiences. The sleek, toned bodies of Lawrence and Pratt as well as the top-shelf special effects of the luxurious spaceship pair well with the generic plot. The movie ultimately delivers on its paper-thin promise but never manages to shake the moral conundrum at its core.