For all the tags thrown in to describe Passengers in its early reviews—mushy, muddled-up sci-fi, even superficial—you would be pleasantly surprised to realise, as the film progresses, that it's not as bad.
The affable Chris Pratt plays Jim Preston, a mechanical engineer, one of the 5,000 passengers on the Homestead Avalon spacecraft, on their way to a new habitable planet. It's a 120-year long journey, during which all its passengers and crew members are put into hibernation, while the ship is on auto-pilot.
However, barely 30 years into the journey, Jim's 'hiberpod' malfunctions, and he wakes up to find he has only bots for company in the spaceship and not a single human being who is awake.
With 90 years to go, he realises he might die of old age before he even gets to the new planet. He tries everything, from sending a message back to earth for help (the message would get delivered in 19 years) to breaking into the control room, but there's nothing he can do. Alone, with nothing productive to do, boredom gnawing at his existence, he gets an idea. He decides to open fellow passenger Aurora Lane's pod, just so he can have some (beautiful) company. It's not a morally right idea, though—it's almost like murder.
Aurora, however, believes that it's a malfunction, and goes through all the stages of despair that he went through first. Gradually, they fall in love, Jim being ever careful to hide the real reason she's awake. Meanwhile, they also have to figure out why the ship experiences frequent malfunctions—systems reboot and gravity failure—and if they'll find a way to get to the new planet young and alive.
Lawrence is admirable as the vulnerable writer whose dream is to live an exciting life so as to tell great stories. But it's Pratt who surprises us. His ease with humour lightens up tense situations, and he brings out the duality in Jim, with confidence in his romance and the underlying guilt.
The concept that shapes the story is imaginative, though it's not a new one. But what forms the emotional core of the film are the dark explorations of morality and humanity.
Can the feelings between two people be called 'true love' if they're the only ones alive? Moreover, Jim literally played God by choosing whose pod he could open up. How does one live with the guilt of knowing that he is dragging someone along with him when he's drowning? Aurora has no choice but to believe what he says, until she knows better—but how will she find out, who else is there to tell her?
Jim embodies the victory of human selfishness over loneliness, the guilt that follows, and the possibility of redemption. Aurora, on the other hand, embodies naïve curiosity. But both of them—along with the other passengers—represent the human nature that seeks escape. It's the hope and thinking that starting afresh somewhere else will somehow change our lives for the better, even though our habits, flaws and emotions are still the way they have been for centuries.
Some of these concepts are barely addressed forthrightly (you have to read between the lines), and that might be why the whole story seems shallow.
Yet, Passengers is tense, thrilling, thought-provoking, and incredibly human. There's a scene where their favourite bartender bot—Arthur (Michael Sheen)—starts malfunctioning, and they unplug his chip in the human belief that it alleviates his 'suffering'. Later, Aurora fixes him up, painting a patch on his head that came off earlier.
Despite its flaws, which can certainly be overlooked, it makes for a good one-time watch. Director Morten Tyldum—who was nominated for the Oscars for The Imitation Game—has certainly made a mark for himself.
Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen