Film review: Passengers

The following is a review of the 2016 film Passengers, directed by Morten Tyldum. This review may contain mild spoilers, though I shall try to minimize them.

This week I set out to the theater to watch Passengers. I’m a sucker for outer space, science fiction films and the advertising campaign made this look like a big one. (As opposed to other genres, such as romantic comedies, which I hate. More on this in a moment.) The film focuses almost entirely on the events encountered by Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), two of 5,000 passengers on an interstellar star ship traveling to a new “colony planet” to begin their new lives.

The basic premise of the movie is that the star ship is on a 120 year voyage to the new world with 5000 paying passengers (and a couple hundred crew) being kept in cryogenic sleeping chambers for the trip. Unfortunately, something goes very wrong (in the first two minutes of the film) leading to potentially catastrophic malfunctions of the ship’s systems. One of the first results is that a couple of passengers eventually wind up being awoken only thirty years into the journey with no way to go back to sleep in a ship which begins to act more and more erratically.

With that out of the way, there’s one thing which needs to be pointed out up front. This movie is not a futuristic, science fiction film with a romantic angle between a couple of characters as a sub-plot. Passengers is a romantic non-comedy which happens to take place on a spaceship. (This is the reason I chose the trailer embedded above instead of some of the others which focus more on the action and science.) Even the primary plot device of the film, which is the technical failure of the ship’s equipment, is a contrived, twisted scenario designed to create tension between the two primary characters. Despite what you may have seen implied in the televised trailers, this isn’t the story of two people who accidentally wake up on this seemingly doomed ship. It’s the story of one person who accidentally wakes up and then… something else happens. (It would be too much of a spoiler to reveal so I’ll leave it at that.)

There’s plenty of glorious outer space scenery and tons of high tech gizmo excitement for those of us looking for an adventure in space travel. But while remaining fun, some of the technical side of the story comes across as being rather dubious at times, even with the normal suspension of disbelief which most such films require. (The physics behind a swimming pool which is suddenly put into a zero gravity environment while you’re swimming in it are certainly questionable and plenty of Reddit threads have popped up discussing that scene.) The fact that a mechanic who builds houses can suddenly master the intricacies of cryogenic pods and gravity driven deep space engines is left to the the viewer’s tolerances in terms of losing yourself in the story.

The tiny cast does a fine job with the material they are given. There are really only four actors who show up in this film for more than a minute or so. Pratt and Lawrence perform well as the romantic couple, even if the facts of their circumstances should really have scotched any attempt at a lasting romance (at least in my opinion.) The remaining players are Michael Sheen (who nearly steals the show as the robot bartender) and Laurence Fishburne, who does a serviceable job as the sole crew member who eventually awakens.

On the Hot Air scale, I wavered between giving Passengers a 3 or a 4, but finally settled on 4 because the special effects which truly sell the sci-fi aspect of the film would go to waste on the small screen. I found it worth the price of a matinee ticket, but would have been disappointed to pay full price. Definitely worth catching it on DVD or Netflix later, though, if you skip it in the theater. If you happen to enjoy romantic outings at the movies more than I do you may be even more pleased. But as far as a real science fiction tale goes, you’d do better going back to watch Ender’s Game.

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

For you parents, Passengers was given a PG-13 rating and that sounds about right. There are a couple of non-explicit sex scenes between the two main characters, but nothing more than you’d see on network television these days. The only actual nudity in the film is a brief shot of Pratt’s derriere in the shower. There are a few expletives which pop up during moments of crisis, but the language is mostly mild. The second half of the film is filled with tension and a sense of impending doom, along with some explosions and other mechanical carnage, but the only “bloody” damage which takes place is a relatively mild puncture wound to Aurora’s arm when the ship is threatening to fall apart. This film should be fine for family members of most ages except possibly the very young.