Rotten Third Act Dooms Star-Driven "Passengers"

Warning: major “Passengers” spoilers below.

It would be easier to chastise Sony for marketing sci-fi horror movie “Passengers” as sci-fi romance if sci-fi horror movie “Passengers” didn’t spend its final reel making such a fantastically ill advised swing towards – you guessed it – sci-fi romance. Although the results are more mixed than miserable, director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game“) has delivered as confused a big-budget movie as there’s been in 2016, offering up stars Chris Pratt (“Guardians Of The Galaxy”) and Jennifer Lawrence (“The Hunger Games”) in a space love story that is, at its core, anything but. Effective in fits and starts but thematically discombobulated, the picture is a shadow of the star-studded event movie promised to audiences when it was proudly announced in December 2014.

Pratt stars as Jim Preston, one of 5,000 passengers on Starship Avalon. They’re all in stasis, sleeping their way through a 120-year journey to the utopian world of Homestead II. A malfunction causes Jim’s pod to open 90 years too early, dooming him to a life of loneliness and, inevitably, death before the ship even reaches its destination. The film’s first half hour sees our lead explore the elaborate, labyrinthine ship, grow a lonely life for himself – and an unkempt beard – and befriend an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen). Pratt’s affable screen presence is enough to cover over the absence of plot, carrying this interstellar “Castaway” on charisma alone.

That is, until the story drunkenly waltzes in.

In what feels straight out of a lesser episode of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” or Charlie Brooker’s mimetic “Black Mirror,” screenwriter Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange“) conjures his lead character’s deepest, darkest desires and gives them the spotlight. Jim longs for a companion, zeroing in on the pod of attractive Brooklyn journalist Aurora Lane (Lawrence). After agonizing over the implications of waking her up (it’s essentially drawn-out murder), he goes ahead with it, staging the breach like an accident and proceeding to woo her until they’re a relatively happy couple drifting through space, making the best out of a bad situation.

Icky ethics don’t make a film good or bad, or necessarily serve as an indictment against its creators. The Stockholm syndrome bent behind “Passengers” isn’t so far removed from Disney’s animated “Beauty And The Beast,” and for its middle hour Spaihts’ story provides just enough drama. Where it careens off the rails is in its action movie climax (Jim and Aurora must save the ship from mechanical failure) and how Jim’s betrayal is ultimately met with a shrug of the shoulders and much undeserved forgiveness on the part of Aurora.

Once Laurence Fishburne shows up as a deck officer also awakened by a glitch, the movie’s great chickening out (or worse) begins, and we’re on an untenable pathway to a happy ending. Worse than having nothing to say at all about Jim’s crimes, writer and director give the deed a tacit endorsement, all in the name of a clumsy denouement that doubles down on the picture’s late game amorality.

It’s okay for a movie to dabble in indecency – sometimes it’s even healthy – but “Passengers” is particularly troubling because it doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing or why it’s doing it.

Since Tyldum and Spaihts don’t understand the consequences of the story they’re telling, they can’t tell it very well. This is manifested in some of the most pointless special effects sequences in recent memory and a waste of two genuinely interesting performers likely at the height of their powers. Nevertheless, all the star power in the world couldn’t have saved such a muddled project, one whose biggest asset is an intriguingly dark setup. The same setup unceremoniously hidden from its ad campaign and ultimately spent on just another – and in this case especially dopey – romance. Viewers looking for gratuitous Chris Pratt butt shots will be richly rewarded. Everyone else will just be left confused, appalled, or both.

Think “Event Horizon,” only less romantic.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 21, 2016
Studio: Sony Pictures
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenwriter: Jon Spaihts
Starring: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexuality, nudity and action/peril)