There's no kind of film more vexing than one that shirks its interesting ideas and themes in the name of being as pacifying as possible. And so, Passengers. It backflips and somersaults around its compellingly creepy and sad conceit with such gusto that to call it 'manipulative' would be the most charitable place to start. Sure, all films are manipulative. But there is a large gulf between someone gently caressing your face and someone jamming their thumbs in your eyes. Even if said thumbs are the combined charms of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence – two very good actors who are visibly doing their utmost to make meat and potatoes out of cotton candy.
Set in the distant future, a spaceship is transporting thousands of cryogenically frozen passengers to a distant, "Homestead Colony". After a malfunction, passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakens, to his horror, 90 years early. After a year of isolation and loneliness, he makes the tough choice to wake up a fellow passenger, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), effectively murdering her future so he'll have someone to talk to and sleep with. They engage in a romance, despite having no chemistry whatsoever. But this plot contrivance is going to contrive itself. Little do they know, the slight malfunction that awoke Jim has set off a chain reaction that threatens their lives and the lives of all the sleeping passengers on board.
The first ten to fifteen minutes are functional and amicable enough. Chris Pratt effectively conveys Jim's spritely joy at being awoken and then his panic and horror when he realises the terrible nature of his predicament. The film begins with a good flow and the set design is unique and nice to look at. So far so good. Despondent and depressed, Jim's only companion is the android bartender (Michael Sheen) who offers some advice – make the most of where you are and don't worry about where you're going, or something equally as hackneyed.
We're then shown a montage where Jim takes advantage of all the entertainments and comforts the spaceship has to offer, set to Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation". This fast and fun song covers near the entirety of Jim's emotional state, from his adulation at having all the toys in the world to play with, to his depression and near suicidal disposition. With his obvious fake beard and long hair and shabby clothes, Chris Pratt embodies the platonic ideal of a sad lonely person in place of us, y'know, actually empathising with a character. It doesn't help that just five seconds before, we were treated to the rousing and fun stylings of Elvis Presley. It's classic tonal whiplash, indicative of a movie that wants us to feel bad, but not, like, too bad. But then, right before making the decision to wake up Aurora, Jim, shaving off his beard, his mind clearly already made up, says to himself like he's a serial killer trying to stave off a dark impulse "Please don't do this", which was startlingly affecting.
Passengers tells us that Aurora Lane is a writer. The film desperately tries to impress upon us that she's a person with her own aspirations and history, perhaps in an attempt to give more weight to the decision that Jim made to end her future. But none of that backstory or whatever amounts to a psychology or character. Again, it's just texture. She's Manic Pixie Dream Girl. And what little we are actually shown of her writing reveals so little about her as a person (except that maybe she's not as good a writer as she thinks she is. I don't know, I'm grasping at straws) that I was left wondering what the point of it was. I can't remember the last film that illustrated such specific backstory only for it to not to matter or pay off.
When they engage in their courtship, that's when the film truly nosedives. Despite the gross, rape-y nature of their relationship, it's framed in the most indulgent way – as in, "look, it's pretty people being charming and doing pretty things and having pretty sex." We get the occasional guilty look from Jim, but he appears like he's guilty of being caught with his hand in the cookie jar rather than guilty of ruining someone's life and sleeping with them under false pretences. When a crewman awakens much later in the film, he absolves Jim of his sin by telling an angry Aurora (and this where you can feel the veritable thumb pressing down on your eye, so excruciating is this justification/dodge) "He was a drowning man. Ain't saying it's right, but a drowning man will always take someone with him," that's when Passengers becomes reprehensible. You suspect that he's a hair away from adding "and besides, you were asking for it." There are more ugly narrative contortions that follow this, so we can leave the theatre feeling, if not good then untroubled, about their romance. But you're most likely to leave the theatre wishing you could get your time and money back. There are crumbs of good things here, but it doesn't add up to a good film. Even a man in jail will find something to smile about once in a while.