Passengers review – spaceship romcom scuppered by cosmic creep

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence have plenty of chemistry but his cyber-stalker actions kill the romance and the space peril is hardly pulse-quickening

Quite a bit is expected of Passengers, the heavily promoted romcom-in-space starring two easy-on-the-eye leads in Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Its basic premise would appear to have been inspired by Douglas Adams: specifically, the giant Golgafrincham ark from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which is carrying huge numbers of people to colonise other planets. In Passengers, it is a sleek spacecraft called the Avalon, which is ferrying thousands to a new life, all in hibernation: the fully automated ship is designed to deal with meteor showers, asteroid storms and the like.

However, in a development you feel the ship’s designers ought to have foreseen, a larger-than-usual collision sends the onboard systems haywire, and up pops the hatch of the hibernation pod belonging to Jim Preston (Pratt), a hunky engineer who is good with his hands but perhaps not the sharpest tack in the box. Pratt is disconcerted to find himself over 80 years away from his destination, and the first 20 minutes of the film follow his essentially fruitless attempts to reprogramme the electronics to allow himself to return to suspended animation. This spectacle of solitariness is leavened a little by the presence of a robot bartender, played with smirking wit by Michael Sheen.

But a com can only become a rom if someone else shows up: we, and the film, are rather obviously hanging on for the arrival of Lawrence to inject some of the highly marketable sass in which she now specialises. Here, though, is where things get tricky for Passengers. All the pre-release material – trailers, marketing trails and the like – suggest that Lawrence’s character, a whimsical writer called Aurora Lane, is woken in a similarly accidental way to Preston; or at least they wilfully gloss over the actual reason. For it turns out – and this isn’t a twist or anything, but simply the character’s introduction into the film – that she is deliberately woken up by Preston after he sees her asleep in her pod and then rummages through her personal files and videos in an interstellar version of social-media stalking.

Passengers: trailer for Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt sci-fi drama

It’s a fantastically creepy start, and while Lawrence and Pratt undeniably possess the magic spark of on-screen chemistry, the basic creepiness of this anti-meet-cute extinguishes what the film-makers presumably are hoping is a warm fuzzy glow of spiky, sparky interaction. Stalking tactics bolstering romantic comedies are by no means new, and over the decades, film-makers have proved adept at somehow planing down real-world nastiness, but here it’s gruesomely inescapable. Of course it leads to complications later on for Lane and Preston (no script could hope to blank it out completely), but so intent is Passengers on forging cosmic levels of romance that it tidies up the unpleasantness and sweeps it under the carpet as quickly as possible.

Passengers has another weakness: not so serious perhaps, but not helpful. Even if its narrative was just as preposterous as Passengers’, Gravity showed how it was possible to suggest genuine physical jeopardy in a spacebound setting. Passengers’ preoccupation with its romcom chops means that, despite all the fancy electronics and stark minimalist design, actual peril is in short supply. Even the showpiece scene where Lawrence is engulfed by swimming-pool water after the shipboard gravity fails is a nicely realised idea, but never remotely is Lane’s emergence from the water, hair slightly ruffled, ever in doubt.

On the positive side, Lawrence’s apparently boundless screen charisma survives pretty much intact: she is an unmistakably vivid presence here in a way that few current performers can match. Pratt is a less radiant presence but offers a natural decency that offsets the aforementioned stalker-creepiness. But neither can do much with that fateful initial premise: it means that Passengers, unfortunately, has suffered irreparable damage to its own engine casing.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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