At first blush, “Passengers” seems like an ideal escapist adventure: a spaceship-set tale where mega-charming A-listers Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence play star-crossed passengers whose bliss is broken by a terrible revelation. But that very disclosure is what soils both the romance and fun of “Passengers,” spinning the film into a repulsive, tone-deaf drama.
Aboard an automated spaceship, 5,000 people are frozen in suspended animation, awaiting their arrival on a planet colony at then end of a planned 120-year journey. “Passengers” begins with one unfortunate traveler waking up 90 years too soon. Act one follows blue-collar mechanic Jim Preston (Pratt) as he stumbles through the re-orientation process, the dreadful realization that he’s alone and awake far too early, and his struggles to get himself back into hibernation. This section is like a marvelous episode of “Black Mirror,” exploring the pros (stealing the nicest suite and having all of the ship’s amenities to yourself) and cons (the suffocating knowledge you will live out your life in a metal world alone) with verve, and the emotional subtlety of sledgehammer. But things take a traumatizing turn when Aurora (Lawrence) enters the picture.
As the months go by, Jim grows a depression beard, and sours on the perks of the ship. He’s desperately isolated, his only companion an android bartender (a sharp and lovely Michael Sheen) programmed for small talk and to dole out cliched advice. Then Jim spots a beautiful woman in a pod, and instead of filling his days with escape attempts or thoughts of suicide, he begins to obsess over her. Jim watches her passenger profile, a video interview in which she chats about her work as a journalist, her love of New York City, and other cocktail party-appropriate chatter. He reads some of her writing, and decides he’s head over heels in love. If only she were awake — he confesses to his robo-buddy — they’d be together. Jim realizes full well that if he uses his technological know-how revive her from her pod early, he dooms her to a life on the ship, never reaching the colony as she dreamed. But, hey, he’s super lonely.
It’s not that I have no sympathy for Jim’s dilemma and pain. But the moment he breaks Aurora from her hibernation, the film crosses a line it refuses to fully acknowledge, and so the romance is not fun, but FUBAR. This is not the premise of a love story: Boy sees girl. Boy becomes obsessed with girl from afar, decides he loves her, decides they are made for each other, she just doesn’t know it yet. Guy rips the girl out of her life, abducts her to live with him in a bunker she can’t escape.
This is cyberstalking, and then kidnapping. “Passengers” abruptly becomes a horror movie, but hopes you’ll be so caught up in the beauty of its sci-fi visuals and gorgeous stars — who repeatedly engage in make-out sessions and off-camera sex — to notice.
My stomach sank when Jim wakes Aurora. But a small pilot light of hope burned that the film would use that terrible, terrible action to discuss Jim’s sense of entitlement and his violation of Aurora. But nope. In fact, it gets worse. When Aurora does find out — after months of having sex with the man she has no idea abducted her — the heartbroken heroine tries to avoid Jim. This shouldn’t be difficult on a spaceship designed for 5,000 people to live for the final four months of the journey. But Jim won’t let her go; he values his need to explain himself over her wish for some space. He sneaks up on her while she’s eating. When she flees, he uses the ship’s announcement system to broadcast his apology as she’s jogging. She’s literally running from him, but can’t escape!
The third act shelves this conflict with some infuriating dialogue that essentially boils down to: What Jim did was wrong, but Aurora is so beautiful, can you really blame him? Yes. Yes. Yes. Over and over again. Just because he was attracted to her doesn’t make it OK for him to steal her. But sure, let’s ignore this and rush into a ticking-clock save-the-ship finale so we can have some cool action shots for the trailer while avoiding the rape culture-promoting plot twist that lingers over this film like a child predator at the edge of a playground.
On top of all that, Pratt and Lawrence do not have a compelling sexual chemistry. The love scenes meant to cement their connection feel forced and fall flat. And Lawrence, one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation, can’t make this character work. Aurora is either stylishly sexy or screaming, in despair, in pain, or in panic. She is exactly the kind of bullshit female character that critics have been begging screenwriters to retire for years. She’s not a person; she’s a plot device and an achingly obvious male fantasy.
Aurora is glamorous, and loves to be decked out in chic black-and-white business-casual wear when she’s not clad in a futuristic bikini that offers plenty of options for the camera to leer. (Pratt by contrast, is never ogled. Instead, his nudity is presented as a joke.) She’s ever-ready for sex, doesn’t own sweatpants, and is smart and funny, but not so smart or so funny that Jim feels threatened by her. When it comes to fixing stuff, she’s so clueless her only job is holding the flashlight. Even her rage over Jim’s betrayal feels part of his fantasy. His guilt demands to be assuaged, so she has to be angry at him, but not for too long. After all, they still have space banging to do.
Considering director Morten Tyldum’s last film managed to wedge a heterosexual romance subplot into the life story of gay scientist Alan Turing, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the promised romance of “Passengers” is bungled so spectacularly. But frankly, I’m outraged that a film that boasts such unique and captivating vision of space travel is wasted on a such an infuriating plot. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts pitching Jim and Aurora into life-or-death peril for a high-stakes finale is a blatant attempt to derail the conversation he sets up with Jim’s decision. But neither the heavy-handed expositional dialogue nor fire and late-in-the-day heroics can shake off the ick and sexist bullshit of “Passengers'” disastrous second act.
“Passengers” opens Dec. 21.