The 1970s speculative science programme Tomorrow’s World used to promise that people of the 21st century would receive their meals in pill form, which sounded both astonishing and oddly joyless. Surely our taste-buds would go on strike. And isn’t masticating part of the fun? The new intergalactic love story Passengers is the cinematic equivalent of those pills. It goes down smoothly enough, and contains in theory many of the necessary food groups, but it leaves you with hunger pangs.
It takes place entirely on the spacecraft Avalon, which would seem to be a cue for the haunting Roxy Music song of the same name, but isn’t. (Though we do hear Elvis Presley singing the line “A little less conversation/ A little more action,” which is either self-deprecating or foolhardy in a film where there’s a lot of talk and nothing very much happens.) During a 120-year journey from earth through space, a hibernation pod malfunction wakes prematurely one of the 5,000 passengers who are on their way to start a new life on the colony planet Homestead II. It is Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) who gets the early alarm call after just 30 years of sleep, though you would think from his mild bedhead that he’s only had ten. He is shocked to find everyone else still enjoying their lie-ins, and even more shocked when he realises that there is no way to get back to sleep: he may eventually reach Homestead II but he will be dead by the time he does.
He will also be spending the intervening years alone. Only the bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen), provides any company, though there are downsides. He is an android designed in the image of Lloyd, the creepy barkeep played by Joe Turkel in The Shining, and he speaks entirely in clichés. (He may have had a hand in the script.)
Facing a life of solitude, Jim decides to wake up one of his fellow passengers. He has become mildly obsessed in particular with Aurora Lane, swooning over her dormant, Snow-White-in-a-glass-coffin body as though he is one of the Seven Dwarfs. Dopey, to be precise. It would be refreshing to report that he chooses to wake Aurora because he believes she will have a dazzling personality and stimulating intellect. He knows from accessing her introductory video that she is a writer, as well as the daughter of a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. But the deciding factor must be that she looks like Jennifer Lawrence as opposed to, say, Ernest Borgnine.
No movie starring Lawrence is ever likely to be flat-out dumb — for all that her looks have played a part in her career ascendancy, her defining quality is toughness, even coarseness. Passengers, though, comes dangerously close. Excerpts from Aurora’s writing make Carrie Bradshaw sound like Hunter S. Thompson. As she starts to fall for Jim, she writes: “He makes me feel my life isn’t over. Like it’s only beginning.” Later that night, she got to thinking that this was “some of the best work I’ve ever done.” I’d love to hear the worst.
Any suspense in the movie rests not on the attempts to fix the problems with the spacecraft (what action there is amounts to watching two amateur electricians at work) but on when Aurora will discover that Jim woke her up before her time, and precisely how mad she will be on a scale of nought-to-murder.
After all, he did harvest information about her for many months before rousing her. He discovered that her father died when she was a teenager so she’s going to have some daddy issues — and that’s not going to hurt his chances, right? He watched her sleeping without her consent, so he’s a voyeur. And he stranded her deliberately in a situation where, isolated from the rest of civilisation, she will have to depend on him entirely for warmth and company. On earth that would be the beginning of domestic abuse and grounds for a restraining order. Only in space, and in Hollywood, could it be a love story.
Despite brisk direction from Morten Tyldum (Headhunters, The Imitation Game), the film never neutralises this poisonous element in its premise. It comes through in odd, sad little moments that should be fun. The sight of tiny vacuuming droids clearing up the crumbs under the table on which Jim and Aurora are at that very moment having sex should be amusing except that we know Jim has gained his advantage through nothing more than being a committed stalker.
Likewise, there’s a cheeky cut from the first time the couple fall into one another’s arms in bed to an exterior shot of the spaceship ploughing through the galaxy, its extended phallic nosecone dragging it into a black hole of innuendo. It’s really a space-age version of the old train-going-into-the-tunnel gag. Once again, though, it’s hard to commit fully to the fun of a film in which a woman has been tricked into bed and doesn’t know it. Our enjoyment depends on our collusion with Jim. Pratt and Lawrence are both jolly, easygoing performers but no one is that good.
This unsavoury element is there for most of the movie, repeating on you like acid reflux from the meal you ate earlier in pill form.
Passengers is released 21 December.