Sunday 18 August 2019

Film review: 'Passengers is a deep-space rom-com with an icky twist'

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers
Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers

Ed Power

Passengers is a deep-space rom-com with an icky twist.

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, arguably the most magnetic stars of their generation, crank the wattage all the way as singletons marooned on a vast, lonely spaceship. They smooch, trade smirks and flirty one-liners, luxuriate in the glow of one another’s stardom.

There’s a problem, however. In trailers Passengers was sold as Robinson Crusoe for two, with the handsome a-listers steered into a cosmic meet-cute when their sleep pods malfunction and they wake decades before their interstellar journey reaches its destination.

But the movie has a nasty kink. Initially, only every-dude space mechanic Jim (Pratt) is roused from his sci-fi slumber. His hibernation unit has packed in and the process can’t be reversed. With almost a century until planetfall, he’s destined to see out his years as an intergalactic hermit.

True, he has quirky robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) as company. Alas, Arthur’s chitter-chatter is limited to niceties and closing hour banter–  he’s basically a Furby who serves a mean cocktail.

 Jim doesn’t take well to isolation and soon has a wild man beard and glassy stare. He passes his days playing video games, gorging at the ship’s impressive spread of ethnic eateries and contemplating suicide. 

With the loneliness driving him to despair he cracks and revives a fellow-passenger, Aurora (Lawrence), claiming she too is the victim of an computer malfunction.

This is quite a violation, made creepier by the fact that Jim engaged in the deep space equivalent of Facebook stalking Aurora in the months before he popped open her pod, snooping into her background and gazing longingly at her in video footage.

Passengers, directed by the Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum, clearly intends having it both ways. Inevitably Jim and Aurora fall in love and when the true circumstances of her revival are revealed she reacts as a wronged paramour rather than an innocent whose future has been stolen. She flings crockery, gives Jim the silent treatment – yet ultimately has him back.

You feel sorry for Pratt, tasked with imbuing likeability in a fundamentally objectionable character (he faced much the same challenge in Jurassic World, in which he was similarly cast as a lunk with a sleazy side).

Lawrence, meanwhile, glides through the movie. Passengers is all about the charm of the leads so it’s okay that she coasts on dimpled grins and the occasionally angry flush. Aurora represents a familiar male fantasy – she is quirky and tomboyish but, as several lingering shots make clear, also an old school bombshell. Given how she’s treated, it’s probably as nuanced a portrayal as the film could bear.

A sudden calamity two thirds of the way through distracts from Jim and Aurora’s relationship and briefly takes Passengers somewhere more interesting. In the final shake-up, however, we are asked to once again reconcile the portrayal of Jim as a fundamentally good guy with his willingness to ruin Aurora’s life.

Passengers is handsome and slick. But not even impassioned mugging from Pratt can obscure the void where its heart should be.

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