Dir: Morten Tyldum
I know this is almost tailor-made to appeal to me, yet it still has me more than a little surprised that so many haven’t liked it nearly as much as I did.
On a spacecraft travelling to a new colonised planet, two passengers (Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence) are awoken from hibernation 90 years too early. With no way of getting back to sleep they have to contend with a malfunctioning ship and each other.
I have seen some lukewarm reviews of this and so I know it’s not working for everyone, but for me personally it was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s often said that you get different things out of a film depending on what you take in with you, so so I went into this being a big fan of the leads, loving the genre and having looked forward to seeing it since casting was announced, so maybe I was never going to be completely impartial, really though reviewers never truly are.
Let’s start with the film as an example of the science fiction genre. The sci-fi themes explored are all things we’ve seen before but the blend of them, with great production and set design help to make this a lovely example of why I enjoy this genre so much. The ship looks great, with design elements that reminded me a little of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and the Axiom from ‘Wall-E’. There are little details I noticed more on my second viewing that impressed me, with the ship being far from a radical design yet a completely understandable and believable one. Even down to the use of the same voiceover artist as the London underground as the ship’s voice helped with suspension of disbelief. There’s also a swimming-pool gravity scene (which has been used in the promotion) that I thought was a really inventive idea for a set-piece.
The film has a few clear sections where the characters go through almost the ‘stages of grief’ with their unfolding situation. I have to avoid spoiling big plot points, though I’ll say I really loved the first third in which the film takes the time to explore the problem and the ship, while showing how it would affect a person mentally. There are also moral dilemmas raised, at one point discussed with android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) who points out they are not questions a robot can answer, they are human problems borne from human emotions.
Another human emotion that is explored is attraction as this is as much a romance as it is sci-fi. In this aspect in particular the casting really becomes even more key, neither of them are ‘settling’, they both scrub up very well. Chemistry is vital as the film is almost entirely just the two of them, with Arthur being the occasional third-wheel who actually adds a lot to their dynamic and serves the story well. I really loved the way the film makes full use of the genre in freshening the first date scenario, including a really a beautiful take on a ‘dance’ with a sci-fi twist that has all the grace and intimacy of dancing.
The promotional tour, of which I saw a lot, highlighted that the characters needed to discover why they were in the situation they find themselves in. This had me anticipating explanations and twists, though I think it was a little mis-sold in that way. The ‘twist’ as it is , comes earlier in the film than I was expecting, rather than being a huge reveal at the end it’s more of a change in direction that influences the rest of the narrative. It may be more of an issue with my own personal expectations of a film like this, and not an actual ‘fault’ with the film, the twist is almost that there’s no twist in the familiar form and maybe others too have expected something more, then left feeling disappointed it never came.
After the film, I discussed it with my friend and we started to delve into the narrative, how things unfold and the alternatives that could have faced the characters. Surprisingly we came to realise just how much they could be analysed, that moral questions and the last act warranted deeper discussion and the way things unfold may actually be the best possible option under the circumstances presented. When a sci-fi film holds up well under such scrutiny even after one viewing it’s a very good sign in my opinion that it will bear up under repeat viewing, possibly better than early reviews and box-office takings might suggest.
I think it may have been a mistake to release the film at the same time as ‘Rogue One’ is hitting its stride. Two big science fiction blockbusters running side by side in the cinemas will inevitably have to contend somewhat, even if one is an original stand alone movie and the other is the latest part of a massive franchise. Just a few weeks later ‘Passengers’ could have served as a lighter option to many of the heavy-hitting awards contenders that fill cinemas this time of year, even if with the inclusion of an Oscar-winning star and previously nominated director (a couple of years back for ‘The Imitation Game‘) it doesn’t stand to get the initially anticipated awards glory itself. Maybe this is another reason other reviews have been so lukewarm, that with the timing and pedigree, people expected something more ‘Oscar worthy’ from this film. It’s that’s the case, readjust your expectations slightly and you stand to enjoy this a lot more.
It probably won’t go on to be considered a definitive classic in the genre in decades time, however I can tell this is a film I’ll watch repeatedly for sheer enjoyment. It’s perfect for a movie night with a mix of friends who will all get something they like from it, whether they enjoy the sci-fi elements, action, drama, humour or the romance, there’s something that could appeal to different ones. I watch so many films in awards season each year, most of which have heavy themes or feature depressing events, so although I feel it does bear up under scrutiny, this was all the more refreshing and enjoyable for the lighter tone and simplicity.
‘Passengers’ is out now on wide release in cinemas around the world but is getting pushed out rapidly as other big-hitters are released. I’d suggest if you really like sci-fi and want a film that’s thoroughly enjoyable (or a ‘popcorn sci-fi’ as my brother put it), this is absolutely worth a watch (or two like me). Time and home release may prove me right that this could have a wider appeal than the cinema receipts suggest.