This high-concept, big-budget romantic adventure from director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange) locates its action in outer space and brings together two of the brightest stars in Hollywood’s own solar system, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Sadly what transpires is stratospherically misjudged.
Five thousand exiles fleeing an overpopulated Earth lie in suspended animation on spaceship the Avalon, undertaking a 120-year journey to a new civilisation dubbed Homestead II. A collision with an asteroid sets in motion a chain of events that sees two passengers prematurely released from their hibernation pods and threatens the lives of everyone on board.
Passengers efficiently unpacks its premise and establishes an, at first, playful tone. But events quickly take a turn for the sinister. Jim Preston (Pratt) is the first, and initially only, passenger to get a rude awakening when his pod catastrophically malfunctions 90 years too early, leaving this 30-something facing the prospect of living and dying alone.
Early scenes show Jim learning to fly solo, bouncing around the cavernous vessel desperately trying to occupy himself. There is humour, too, as he converses with holograms and androids – including Michael Sheen’s bartender Arthur – who fail to register the severity of the situation, offering pre-programmed, now defunct instructions and trite advice.
In a further absurdity, Jim is denied access to decent meals and accommodation. These solo scenes recall Moon and The Martian, especially when the industrious mechanic gets to work trying to puzzle his way out of his predicament and the affable Pratt carries the burden of solitude well.
However, and this is where things get weird, after spending more than a year alone, Jim fixates on fellow passenger – and unconscious stranger – Aurora Lane (Lawrence). He rabidly consumes all available info on this elegant journalist – her writings and interviews – and idealises her.
Finally, he sabotages Aurora’s pod, not only with designs of wooing a woman deprived of any other option, but effectively robbing her of her future: a transgression so grave it undermines the whirlwind romance that follows.
So, it’s just a classic tale of boy meets girl – if “boy” was a cyber-stalker and “girl” was suffering from something like Stockholm syndrome. This narrative obstacle (stranding them together forever by selfishness rather than destiny) takes events in a very dark direction, one which, to be fair, is briefly embraced when things come to a nasty head.
However, what is infinitely more problematic are the attempts to awkwardly force a conventional resolution onto this deeply disturbing state of affairs. With understandable animosity making way for formulaic space heroics, Aurora and Jim are plunged into a Gravity-style survival situation.
There are some interesting elements here: despite the spectacular setting and significant price tag, it often has the feeling of a small-scale, claustrophobic drama. Taking the story into gender-swapped Fatal Attraction territory might have worked too, if only the film-makers had run with it.
Passengers also briefly shines a light on the shady corporation behind the relocations, a firm who have made their fortune from the colonisation of planets and who offer dubious deals to those willing to build and staff these new civilisations, something which has a real-world parallel in practices of indentured labour.
The primary casting is tantalising and there are some high-profile supporting turns. But it all comes back to that dunderheaded decision. Those hoping to see Lawrence and Pratt light up the screen will be disappointed; in Passengers the charismatic duo are set an impossible challenge to keep a love story alive past the point of no return.
Passengers is in cinemas from 21 December 2016
Order your copy of the Radio Times Guide to Films 2017