Sunday, 19 March 2017

"You can't get so hung up on where you'd rather be, that you forget to make the most of where you are."

Passengers arrives with a cargo hold laden with expectation. Jon Spaihts' (Prometheus) script had been knocking around on the Black List of the best unproduced screenplays for the best part of a decade, and after flirting with different stars and directors over the years (Reese Witherspoon and Keanu Reeves were once attached as the leads), the film arrives with the names of arguably two of today's biggest stars above the title – Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, whose eight figure salaries have been well documented.

So was the destination worth the journey? Well, like the corkscrewing spaceship at its centre, Passengers is slick, hi-tech and easy on the eye. But there is not a whole lot happening on board.





The story begins on the starship Avalon, 30 years into its 120 year voyage to Homestead II, a colony planet that the ship's 5,000 passengers will soon be calling home. But a piece of meteorite blasts through the ship's shield and causes a cascade of system failures leads, shorting out the suspended animation pod occupied by Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanic en route to a fresh start.

As the ship's artificial intelligence systems try to acclimatise him to his new living situation, he soon becomes distraught when he learns he is the only person awake, and he has got approximately 90 years to kill before he arrives at his destination.

Jim rattles around the empty luxury liner, exhausting the entertainment and dining options and growing an impressive beard, before he starts to become suicidally lonely.

It is at this point – through a plot contrivance that has been kept hidden from the trailers, which we won't spoil here – he acquires a fellow pod companion, writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a sleeping beauty who is similarly freaked out when she wakes in her busted pod. The two hang out, shoot the breeze and make plans for survival. And, naturally, begin to fall in love. All the while, various parts of the ship are glitching out.

It is certainly an intriguing premise, and the not too distant future technology is brought to life via some sharp digital effects. As near futures go, it feels somewhat familiar – all screens are semi-transparent, virtual reality assistants are oppressively chirpy, synthetic food is served by vending machine – but it is impressively realised.

Throughout the first half, interesting ideas abound. What kind of person relocates to a place that takes generations to get to? Who exactly is getting rich from the colonisation of Homestead II? And most importantly, how long will it be until we can have android bar staff like the duteous Arthur (Michael Sheen)?

While many questions are posed, Passengers' mysteries don't always lead to satisfying reveals. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) puts the romance up front, and while he is happy to liberally scatter cine-literate references throughout – can anyone see a revolving spaceship corridor and not think of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or hypersleep pods and Alien (1979)? – Passengers lacks the richness and complexities of the genre's strongest offerings. Appearing so soon on the heels of the superior Arrival (2016), and even the latest thought provoking series of Black Mirror, it feels somewhat slight.

Lawrence and Pratt are among the most charismatic performers working today, and their natural likeability lends a boost to what are woefully underwritten roles. Pratt, in particular, has his work cut out to ensure that Jim doesn't come across as creepy in light of some questionable behaviour.

The couple's chemistry may not quite have the crackle of the likes of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (La La Land), but they certainly make a pleasing pairing on screen – the idea of spending 90 years with either of them isn’t an objectionable one.

There is a humour and lightness to much of their interaction, even if the characters don't rank alongside either actor's most memorable – Jim lacks his usual roguish charm, and Lawrence's glassy turn isn't up there with her most engaging. Michael Sheen, meanwhile, lends terrific support, nailing his mannequin bartender's ersatz humanity. Part relationship counsellor, part conscience and occasionally a necessary plot device, Sheen's Arthur injects a welcome third perspective, breaking into the lovers' self-interest and laying bare their flaws – which are more than just passing.

With the actors doing enough to keep you invested, and a steady supply of visually impressive set-pieces maintaining the pace, Passengers offers plenty of in-flight entertainment for its two-hour running time, even if it can't match the tension of the similarly themed space survival saga, The Martian (2015).

Its main problem, in fact, is that while it is perfectly enjoyable in itself, it is always reminding you of slightly better films that it doesn't quite live up to. As science fiction, it feels like a professionally produced hybrid that lacks its own identity. As a romance, it never fully earns your investment. For those reasons, it seems destined to pass smoothly by without making much of a lasting impact.

Passengers never quite delivers on its concept, or the prospect of its stellar pairing.




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