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‘Passengers’ Movie Review: Melancholy Romance In Outer Space

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Passengers’ press tour, with all its highs and lows, earned lots of media attention in the months leading up to the sci-fi romance’s release — and I say “earned” because stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence worked hard out there, presenting an effervescent and funny united front on what can be an often exhausting intercontinental slog through countless interviews. Lawrence and Pratt both exude seemingly effortless charm and wit, which is part of why their onscreen pairing must have seemed like a casting director’s dream. So it’s a funny thing to watch Pratt and Lawrence reign in their charms to portray two “normal,” even slightly dull, people who awaken to find they may live the rest of their natural lives alone in space.

Perhaps this dimming of the stars’ respective wattage was a choice on director Morten Tyldum’s part, to match the somewhat morose central plot concept and make these two physically-perfect people more relatable (“does this space ship have spray tan chambers?” is a question I found myself wondering several times). But script writer Jon Spaihts must shoulder significant blame, dealing Lawrence in particular some real clunkers. Like every third white woman who has fallen in love onscreen in the past 20 years, Lawrence’s Aurora Lane is a writer who lives in New York City, though I don’t know a single writer who would actually say things like “give me a cup of coffee and a view of the Chrysler building and I could write all day!” in real life.

But Aurora’s got a huge fan in Pratt’s Jim Preston, who falls in love with her writing, her pre-journey video interviews and her sleeping body, eventually going against his own better judgement to awaken his new friend 90 years too early without her consent. This is supposed to be romantic, or at least justified by Jim’s sanity-eroding loneliness, because Passengers is a love story. Sort of. It’s a hurried version of a love story that jostles against the action plot: We witness much of their deepening feelings for each other via montage, supplemented by words from Aurora’s notes and a couple of fairly chaste love scenes. With meaningful looks, Pratt and Lawrence attempt to accomplish the character development the movie’s dialogue doesn’t provide.

Passengers is also a sort-of action movie, though that thread doesn’t gain steam until the third act (the gravity-loss sequence in the trailer that traps Aurora in floating pool water is a highlight, as are discovering many of the ship’s futuristic features through Jim). Passengers can also be viewed as a subtle portrait of the perils of automation, as no human or AI on the space craft is prepared to even accept that grave technical failures can occur on the ship. Ultimately, Passengers seems to want to be about human connection, but it’s not a whole lot of fun to root for a connection that’s entirely based on limited options — both romantic and professional, in Aurora’s case, and we’re asked to view her space prison as a liberation of sorts. The fact that Spaight’s script took nearly 10 years to hit the screen is supposed to be a tale of Hollywood triumph, but the script — not the excellent special effects, nor the capable actors — is Passengers’ fatal flaw.

Oh, but Michael Sheen is an absolute delight as Arthur, the android bartender in the ship’s The Shining-esque bar. Give that bot a spinoff.

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