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Passengers Review: A Flaky, Spaced-Out, Guilty Pleasure

Despite all its bumbling adultness, the Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt-starrer does the pop-entertainer basics right: it transports us into its world, no matter how outrageous or flawed

Rahul DesaiRahul Desai

January 6, 2017 | 04:01 PM

FC Rating

★★★★★
film-companion
Passengers Review: A Flaky, Spaced-Out, Guilty Pleasure

In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Matt Damon plays a botanist who gets accidentally stranded on Mars after his team’s mission is abruptly terminated. In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Matt Damon plays an astronaut who, after being stranded for years on an uninhabitable planet, makes a morally debatable call: he fakes data and tricks a team into rescuing him. Crippling loneliness wasn’t his thing after all. As we have learned from commercial Hollywood and beyond: it’s one thing being trapped within this moldy planet, but it’s completely another being trapped somewhere within this galaxy. Combine the handyman resourcefulness of the first Damon with the borderline-murderous ethical conflict of the second, and we get Chris Pratt in Passengers.

The drama itself is goofy, flimsy, simplistic and farfetched, but its two occupants are strangely fallible.

Pratt’s character, Jim Preston, a mechanic by trade who wakes up 90 years too early on a colonist starship, isn’t a villain though. He is simply far more human. Perhaps this is the most complicated, and fascinating, aspect of this ‘space-survival’ drama. The drama itself is goofy, flimsy, simplistic and farfetched, but its two occupants are strangely fallible.

Sure, he’s the “hero” of a story per se, but a more conventional resignation to fate can take many weaker forms: what if Cast Away’s Tom Hanks had the power to choose his partner on a deserted, self-sustaining island? What if Gravity’s Sandra Bullock had managed to pull George Clooney into a luxurious space station instead? What if Moon’s Sam Rockwell had the choice to clone up a lady instead?

Individuality is often the most cinematic cornerstone of courage. What if, closer to home, Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt had gotten away with their Stockholm-syndrome-afflicted relationship in Imtiaz Ali’s Highway? The uneasiness of watching Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence (as Aurora Lane) here is somewhat similar. It isn’t right, and it doesn’t feel right to even feel happy or relieved for him. Yet, I was, because as much as I hate to admit it, I’d have perhaps done the same in his place. And maybe you would have, too. That’s just where we’re at, right now, in their history of humanity – ironically, perhaps the reason these two may have left Earth to build a new life from scratch elsewhere.

Jim is designed as a (good-looking) victim of unfortunate circumstances – an ordinary man faced with an extraordinarily flawed choice. Out of the 4999 other hibernation pods, he chooses her – without her knowledge, of course – because, well, she’s Jennifer Lawrence.

Because once Passengers remembers that it’s a big budget, visually extravagant intergalactic action saga, and not just an indie love story, it stops being unintentionally deep.

And she’s also a good writer, whose earthly words seem to have cast a spell on him. He falls for her even before he wakes her up, like watching a film and falling for the lead actress, with the only difference being that she is well within his reach. She is not a fantasy, even though their story feels like a rather glib version of dark roleplay. But there’s nobody around to judge them. They are also well aware that they wouldn’t have ever gravitated towards one another (pun intended) – unless they were the last two of their kind.

His decision could well be a sci-fi allegory for online stalking (discretely reading her articles being an equivalent of, say, a display picture or witty Twitter profile); or a mainstream parable for lives lived out of suitcases in transit across plush hotel rooms. In fact, their initial bliss could even be a figurative take on the moral ambiguity of an arranged marriage – there also comes a point where all her ambitions, her dreams and fierce talent, have gone for a toss because of him. It’s both ironic and impressive that, somehow, even with no visible sign of civilization left, a choice between career and love will define the future of humanity. Some things never change.

There’s something vaguely poetic, in a playful-musical sort of way, about watching two defeated souls using love as a drug to numb their grief; about watching two lonely hearts try to make the most of a tragic life together. 

Yet, entrenched deep within these foundations of grey lays a juvenile optimism about this film. There’s something vaguely poetic, in a playful-musical sort of way, about watching two defeated souls using love as a drug to numb their grief; about watching two lonely hearts try to make the most of a tragic life together.

I don’t know what it is, but they share this reluctant “accidental” chemistry – the kind where they are consumed by one another only so that they don’t get consumed by their own minds. It’s a fine line; they look happy, only because sadness will be unbearable. A metaphor for life itself, even. Or perhaps I’m just reading too much into a silly little plot.

Because once Passengers remembers that it’s a big budget, visually extravagant intergalactic action saga, and not just an indie love story, it stops being unintentionally deep. It stops raising questions once it tries to discover answers. It becomes a convenient, campy and – thankfully, unapologetic – parody onto itself. It begins to trip on its own contrivances and cute technical jargon.

It’s anything but self-serious, like an adorable puppy clumsily teething to show off its evolution. Even the cornier scenes – those with the couple doing romantic space-walks off the edge of the ship, swimming in a penthouse-style infinity glass-pool and making love against the background of a wall projecting the Northern Lights (of course I imagined the “actual” sex, thanks to our ever-alert CBFC guardians of the galaxy) – feel fairly sweet, if one can get past Pratt’s wooden creep-face act. Or at least until Lawrence’s intense physicality and crying-face takes over. I bet Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi, in Interstellar) wished someone made a wishful spinoff like this on him when he was left to age 23 years in a spaceship because of the Miller’s-planet debacle.

Despite all its bumbling adultness, Passengers does the pop-entertainer basics right: it transports us into its world, no matter how outrageous or flawed.

Despite all its bumbling adultness, Passengers does the pop-entertainer basics right: it transports us into its world, no matter how outrageous or flawed. It equips its male protagonist, a figure just short of a space-age criminal, with the power or redemption. It isn’t so much an adventure pivoting on its disoriented feminism, as it is a light-hearted film having fun with its own medium. Fun is not such a bad thing at the movies. Even if it means laughing at, and with, the movie simultaneously.