“Passengers” (2016): Brilliant Acting and Stunning Visuals Without a Story to Match

When Passengers first appeared on 2016’s release schedule, the premise looked intriguing: two people on a 120-year colonization voyage through space emerge from hibernation 90 years ahead of schedule. The possibilities seemed endless. However, the film’s story does not fulfill the initial intrigue of the premise.

The film takes place aboard the Avalon, a large space colonization vessel carrying 5000 people on a 120-year voyage to a planet designated as Homestead II. The colonization is the product of Homestead Corporation. All passengers and crew are in individual hibernation pods during the journey, leaving the Avalon devoid of human activity. The crew is to be awakened a few months prior to the Avalon’s arrival at their destination and a month or two before  the passengers awaken.  However, best laid plans and all that, the ship runs into an asteroid field and, even though data screens report that self-repair is complete, the Avalon’s systems have sustained damage that will eventually threaten the lives of everyone aboard.

The first sign of a malfunction is when passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) emerges from slumber 90 years prematurely. Jim, the lone human wandering the ship, makes use of the automated amenities provided for the crew and passengers once they awaken. His only companion is the bartender android, Arthur (Michael Sheen). Much to his frustration, Jim can’t find a way to re-enter hibernation, so he whiles away the days with inane activities and conversing with Arthur. After over a year of isolation from other humans, Jim finally gets a human companion when a second passenger, Aurora Dunn (Jennifer Lawrence), wakes up. Another year passes and, as there are more and more obvious malfunctions in the Avalon’s systems, crew-member Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne) comes out of hibernation.

The film’s  story is divided into three distinct parts. The first act focuses on Jim’s isolation. The second act depicts Jim’s and Aurora’s relationship developing over the course of a year. The third act is an action story as Jim, Aurora, and Gus fight to save the ship and it’s hibernating occupants.

Passengers is written by Jon Spaihts, who also had a hand in Prometheus (2012) and  Dr. Strange (2016), and is listed as co-writer for  The Mummy, scheduled for 2017.  Though the script for Passengers was on the 2007 Blacklist of unproduced screenplays, it’s a rather uninspired rehashing of tried and true storylines. On the surface, the first act is reminiscent of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or even Cast Away (2000). The second act is a particularly annoying venture into the hidden-secret love story, where one half of a couple is harboring a secret that threatens the relationship and as time goes on — about a year in this case — the revelation of said secret becomes harder and harder as the potential harm grows greater and greater. This is the type of story where you might find yourself mentally screaming at one of the characters, “TELL THEM BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!” Once the secret is revealed, the story degenerates into the offender doing everything possible to elicit forgiveness while the offended does everything possible to show contempt while withholding forgiveness. The third act segues into an action piece and predictably inserts a catalyst that might possibly supersede the betrayal and lead the offended to the recognition of what’s really important in life, resulting in forgiveness of the betrayer and an even greater bond between the two. Unfortunately, the story is rather hackneyed, adding nothing new other than a spaceship full of people as the setting. The way in which the secret is revealed is decidedly unsatisfying and doesn’t mesh with the character’s persona up until that point.

The main reason to see Passengers is not the story, though that’s what first makes the film appealing. The main reason to see Passengers is the acting. Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant and Chris Pratt effectively provides the counterpart for Lawrence to play against in their roles as star-crossed lovers. Fishburne and Sheen are also brilliant in supporting roles. Though playing an inscrutable android, Sheen is somehow able to provide a full scope of emotions behind his blank stares. Fishburne, only on screen for a short time during the third act, immediately commands your attention. As the lone crew-member, he effortlessly takes charge and provides the sense of urgency and suspense needed to propel the characters’ actions.

Passengers is ably directed by Morten Tyldum, who also helmed The Imitation Game (2014) for which he received an Oscar nomination. Many of the visuals are stunning as the revolving ship is shown moving through space and the shots of the Avalon’s interior showcase  its size and beauty. However, the 3D, though serviceable, is not especially impressive. There are two or three scenes in which the ship’s artificial gravity fails that should create a 3D-induced “wow” sensation, but it never materializes.

Passengers is worth the watch for the direction, visuals, and acting. Just don’t expect any surprises from the story. The only surprise – how the secret was unveiled – doesn’t make sense and pulls the viewer out of the story for a few moments. It could be so much more.

Passengers 3.3 out of 5 stars (3.3 / 5)

Jeff Mohr
Jeff lives smack dab in the middle of the cornfields of Iowa and is a long-time horror fan. His first remembered encounters with the genre were The Wizard of Oz, Tarzan gorilla chases, and watching the first broadcast of The Twilight Zone episode, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." While he now qualifies as an old fart, he strives to be an Old Boy. Paraphrasing Robert Bloch, he has the heart of a small boy. He keeps it in a jar on his desk.

Jeff has written for Horrornews.net and SQ Horror Magazine. He currently writes for Gruesome Magazine and is a co-host of the Decades of Horror podcasts - The Classic Era, 1970s, and 1980s - and the Gruesome Magazine Podcast.