The sleeper ship has long been a staple of science fiction literature, recently in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Clarke Award winning Children of Time, and science fiction cinema, the Nostromo, the Sulaco and the Prometheus, but only rarely is it the hypersleep process itself which forms the backbone of the story, as in Pandorum, but like the Alien films that was a science fiction horror, while Passengers is a romantic drama, a feature vehicle for its two stars, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, as much as the human cargo carried to a new life.
It is an unspecified time in the future as the Avalon corkscrews through the night at half the speed of light, driven by a fusion powered ion drive, the flickering flame of its asteroid shield protecting the self contained kilometre long steel world with its 258 crew and five thousand passengers, just one of thousands of interstellar flights of the Homestead Company, taking colonists on their one hundred and twenty year voyage to a new world with the promise of a fresh start and room to grow.
James Preston, mechanic, formerly of Denver, Colorado, is revived from hibernation and undergoes his orientation for arrival on Homestead II but is unsatisfied with the programmed responses he receives from the ship’s avatars: why is he the only person awake? Circling around a variety of automated responses with no intuition behind them, he finally ascertains that there has been a malfunction and that they are only thirty years into the journey, with ninety years, three weeks and two days remaining until planetfall.
Unable to reactivate the hibernation process and with his only company the android bartender Arthur who happily blanks the non-sequitur of Jim’s presence, Jim initially tries to make the best of his situation, taking full advantage of the Avalon, less of an austere colony ship and more of a fantastic luxury cruise liner but the isolation begins to take a toll, degenerating to a bearded slob despite upgrading himself to the finest suite until he finds a focus which captures his every thought: the sleeping beauty from New York, New York, Aurora Lane.
Written by Jon Spaihts, partially responsible or possibly to blame for the mixed bag of The Darkest Hour, Prometheus and Doctor Strange and with The Mummy anticipated (dreaded?) in 2017, the year of Jim’s deterioration is a sanitised montage during which, like The Martian, never goes the full Freeman Lowell, sidestepping the full impact of that unbreakable, inhuman loneliness.
Faced with decades of isolation, is Jim’s action forgivable? The answer is in the casting: Chris Pratt, breakout star of Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, is presented as a heroic leading man, and Passengers fully plays to his Star-Lord persona with the soundtrack offering the classic sounds of Dylan and Presley and dance-off challenges.
He and Lawrence, her ascendancy to the Hollywood A-list inevitable since Winter’s Bone, may be delightful to watch but they are never stretched by the material, and similarly Tron: Legacy‘s Michael Sheen is required to do little more than pour drinks and listen nor as Deck Chief Gus Mancuso can Laurence Fishburne be considered a stranger to the dangers of deep space having once mounted a rescue mission to the Event Horizon.
Accepting the narrative convenience that Jim is a mechanic, Aurora can’t stop being a writer, and fortunately both are psychologically strong, likely a selection factor for the mission in the first place, and together they discover their “accidental happiness” in what is undeniably the prettiest science fiction film of the year from a spectacular first date floating among the stars to the course adjustment of the Arcturus slingshot.
The Avalon bearing more than a superficial resemblance to the useless wonders of the Axiom but with less context given of the society and technology which has created it than demonstrated in Wall-E, there are moments which remind of Sunshine but it lacks the depth or conviction of that film, and coming from the school of science fiction writing where all problems can be solved by throwing a big switch it sacrifices significant credibility in the final act crisis.
With The Imitation Game‘s Morten Tyldum at the helm, Passengers is a vast step up for him in terms of technical complexity and accomplishment, and set against a background of stars every scene is exquisite, the vast sets beautifully designed and seamlessly created, impossible to tell what is real and what is digital extension, but it fails to challenge expectation. A crowd-pleasing big-budget studio picture whose destination, like the course of the Avalon, was determined long before it was launched and that the mission is a compromised success is solely through the charm and talent of Lawrence and Pratt.
Passengers is now on general release and also screening in 3D