Your own potential can be your greatest adversary. The same goes for films. Each film, each story, starts with a premise that is the initial motive force that gets the story going. Whether the film succeeds is often determined by whether it knows what to do with the potential that is hidden inside its premise. In Passengers, the premise is that a guy wakes up alone in the middle of a space journey that is set to continue for another 90 years. He decides after long deliberation to wake up a girl to save himself from loneliness. Does the film know what to do with this premise? Well, it walks down the road of its potential up to a certain point, and there it stops.
Passengers looks stunning, but it is one of those films that is good enough at the start to leave you disappointed at the end. It offers interesting ideas that set the imagination going. How would the story continue? What would have happened next? But the movie devolves into standard mindless action fare, so that we stop thinking. And then the story ends. And considering that Hollywood does this all the time, that makes the final third of the movie cheap. We’ve seen this so often that we are almost used to it: exciting ideas that turn into brainless action at the climax of the film. But that is also an uninspired, “safe” way to end a movie.
I wish Passengers had more balls to follow its potential deeper down the rabbit hole. (I hope I didn’t mix up the metaphors too much there.) As it is now, the film is mostly surface level entertainment. It looks slick; it has amazing production design and it has the star allure of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. The space ship looks amazing. Reminded me of Wall-E (2008). Parts of the story and the ship also echo Sunshine (2007). And you might remember how that film also devolved into disappointing action nonsense near the end. Sunshine is the best comparison to Passengers.
I was quite taken with this film. I do not actually regard it in a negative way. I’d say it’s pretty good for about 3/4 of the time and 3/4 of the material. Basically, the whole first half hour is the introduction to the ship and to Jim (Chris Pratt) as he wanders the hallways and big spaces of the ship, and it’s an inviting introduction. Then, the story offers us material that is sure to make you think. There’s a central ethical question that the film offers up for us to think about, and you can either understand what happens on the ship or disregard it as highly unethical. Is it human nature what happened? I appreciate that the story is set up the way it is. It shows some confidence and a certain vision behind the film.
What the action does at the end of the story is to force the ethical dilemma to get resolved for us. And that felt wrong. It felt to me as if the way the story got resolved is not a valid way of resolving the central conflict of the film. Here we go back to the potential that this film had. I would have liked to see this story play out across many years, because the “happy ending” that we get is rather abrupt. In short, this film needed more storytelling.
Still, Passengers is worth seeing. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it has enough moments of suspense, comedy and emotion to immerse. It has lovely visuals and some intellectual questions to intrigue. It might have worked as a TV pilot episode as well.