From the director of The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum and Prometheus writer Jon Spaithts, Passengers is a big budget sci-fi with a character-driven focus.
The Avalon starship is on a 120-year journey to the colony of Homestead II and being flown by autopilot. After the starship goes through an asteroid belt engineer, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), is awoken from hibernation, 90 years too early. After spending a year alone he decides to wake up another passenger for company, the writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), but dooms her to the same fate.
Passengers has been in development for ten years, being placed on the 2007 Blacklist of the best unmade screenplays and had various directors attached to it, from Game of Thrones‘ Brian Kirk to David Fincher and actors like Keanu Reeves, Emily Blunt and Rachel McAdams were linked to the film before Lawrence and Pratt were cast.
Passengers had $110 Million budget, massive special effects and Lawrence and Pratt had massive pay packets: Lawrence got top billing despite Pratt having more screentime.
Despite Passengers having the trappings of a blockbuster it is really a smaller, more intimate story, akin to Silent Running and Moon, using a limited number of sets and characters whilst focusing on people living in the void of space. There are big action set-pieces in the final act but the real focus was on the mystery on why the characters woke up.
The film has a triple threaded plot, the mystery about why the characters woke up, the budding romance between Jim and Aurora and the background plot of the ship malfunctioning. Tyldum’s experience has been with thrillers and with his previous flick, the Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game, he expertly balanced various storylines in the film.
Tyldum pulls off this trick, again, balancing the romance and mystery whilst in the background the malfunctions are slowly increasing. This background detail adds to that sense that a larger threat is looming that could put the whole the spaceship in danger whilst there is a creepiness regarding the relationship considering how it started.
Tyldum has a particular knack for extending a scene to add tension to a moment: one of the best examples was when Jim reaches his lowest ebb – the outcome was obvious but that didn’t stop the Norwegian filmmaker getting every last drop of drama out of it.
With the special effects teams, cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, and composer, Thomas Newman, Tyldum also supplied many moments of awe and spectacle that could please any sci-fi fan. Although the pacing for climax comes across as a video game as Jim and Aurora constantly face more obstacles.
Passengers is a film that wears its sci-fi influences on its sleeve. The set up of the film could play like a prequel to Prometheus where someone is alone, maintaining a spaceship alone for years whilst everyone else is in stasis.
2015’s The Martian was also an influence, the first act of Passengers has a character to use his engineering skills to survive and it tries to match The Martian‘s scene of humour and it was clear Passengers wanted to be 2016’s version of Gravity, Interstellar and the aforementioned The Martian, being the big, prestigious sci-fi film of year: unfortunately Denis Villenuve’s Arrival beat it to the punch.
There was also an air of Pixar’s Wall-E in the mix: Wall-E was a lonely little robot left on Earth until he falls in love with EVE and unwittingly became the saviour of mankind. The courtyard of Avalon had similarities to the Axion where the Earthlings were meant to live in luxury for a few months but ended up being 700-year long stay. The Avalon’s cleaning robots have a similar personality to the ones in Wall-E.
Passengers does attempt some fairy tale connections: Aurora is a reference to Sleeping Beauty and Avalon is the island that King Arthur’s body was sent to after he died in battle. But these illusions are only skin deep and if these names were changed then there wouldn’t be any fairy tale context.
Passengers made a big deal that it had two big stars. Considering Pratt role as Peter Quill/Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy it is hard to block it from the mind because of the space setting: however, his role in Passengers allowed him to flex his dramatic muscles.
Lawrence was a lot more engaged with some of her other big budget roles (i.e. Mystique in the X-Men) – maybe the $20 Million pay packet and getting 30% of the profits was enough of an incentive for her. Lawrence explodes in fury when she finds why she really woke up.
Passengers has received some fairly negative reviews from critics: it only has a 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is not as smart as it thinks it is and the premise was designed to be a horror movie: yet it is an entertaining sci-fi film that had a healthy mix of character development and visual grandeur.