Written by Emilie Kefalas
This just in: We are in the midst of a new space race and it’s not even in our solar system. Since Alfonso Cuarón’s terrifying albeit gorgeous interstellar drama “Gravity” pulled audiences back into the thrill of weightlessness, scientific dialogue and unpredictable asteroids, Hollywood rediscovered its fetish for onscreen space exploration.
Enter Morten Tyldum’s “Passengers,” the much-talked-about and unfairly judged submission into this re-emerging cinematic category. For those who haven’t heard of or read any publication discussing the film’s misleading trailer, a major plot development beckons some uncomfortable questions. However, if you chose to bypass “Passengers” simply because of its bad press, you would miss an intriguing, surprisingly deep outing into the next frontier.
Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, is one of over 5,000 passengers aboard the Avalon, a starship that looks like a DNA strand’s double helix. The ship is 30 years into its 120-year journey to an earth-like colony on the planet Homestead II when Jim’s hibernation pod malfunctions after an asteroid strike. Realizing he’s awake 90 years too soon and completely alone (with the exception of Arthur, an android bartender played by Michael Sheen), Jim panics, plays with the ship’s shiny features, then contemplates suicide over the course of a year.
One day, Jim wanders the rows of hibernation pods and notices a young woman, a writer, Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence). He watches her video profile and eventually falls for her charming personality. For months, he agonizes over whether he should wake the sleeping beauty, acknowledging how morally wrong it would be to manually revive her and condemn her to his fate.
Jim’s actions and Aurora’s helplessness in their effects provoke serious ethical themes concerning consent and the desire for human contact. When Aurora, after befriending Jim, becomes romantically involved with Jim and discovers he essentially ended her chances of experiencing Homestead II or any life beyond the Avalon, she mercilessly unleashes her character’s disbelief, pain and rightful rage. “He murdered me,” she tells another awakened passenger, Gus (Laurence Fishburne), a Chief Deck Officer whose pod breaks down just like Jim’s.
Audiences have been anything but silent in their critique that this catch was absent in the film’s initial theatrical release trailers, which make it appear both Jim and Aurora wake up at the same time due to similar pod malfunctions. The way I see it is, yes, Jim committed a great sin for the sake of companionship, but that should not qualify “Passengers” as dismissible.
His character is flawed, but Pratt, along with screenwriter Jon Spaihts, gives him parallel vulnerabilities and conflicted interests. Lawrence holds her own as Spaihts’s script progresses, and in the end, Aurora’s own need for companionship brings her story arc back to the film’s focus on time as an enemy.
The most underrated element of “Passengers” is, without question, Thomas Newman’s stunning score. Newman, whose resume covers movies set on land, underwater, and beyond, is no stranger to composing the music of space.
The scene in which Pratt and Lawrence float with nothing but adjustable strings attached to their space suits (appropriately titled “Spacewalk”) bears a heavy resemblance to a famous interstellar dancing sequence in “WALL-E” (“Define Dancing”), one of three Pixar films Newman scored.
Rodrigo Prieto’s shots of the Avalon are enhanced with Newman’s flicker of light chords, like stardust sprinkling the mystical, ethereal isolation of lightspeed. The main title, “The Starship Avalon,” interweaves a breathtaking woodwind with the breath of high-pitched echoes, a theme that reappears throughout the film’s most human moments.
2016 was a mixed year for Columbia Pictures, with animated films like “The Angry Birds Movie,” and “Sausage Party” hitting it big, but live action flicks like “Ghostbusters” and “The Magnificent Seven” (also starring Pratt) disappointing in box office returns. Though “Passengers” is currently underperforming in theaters, I encourage any skeptics or space junkies to view and assess the film for themselves.
I enjoyed “Passengers” because it made me think. More importantly, I left the theater still contemplating its resolution. Unexpectedness is alluring at the movies, and with Jim and Aurora’s story, anything seemed fair game for their fate. Their struggles with interstellar isolation kept me guessing, something I’ve grown less accustomed to when attending the theater.