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Sci-fi drama ‘Passengers’ is narratively over-plotted and ethically underbaked

🕐 3 min read

In “Passengers,” Chris Pratt plays a man who, while in suspended animation during a 120-year commercial space mission to a faraway colony planet, is mistakenly awakened mid-trip. Adrift and alone in a massive floating super-mall – tricked out with a basketball court, Japanese and Mexican restaurants and an elegant bar staffed by an obliging, crimson-jacketed droid – Pratt’s character faces the existential challenge of living out his days in solitude, dying long before his 5,000 fellow travelers reach their destination.

Meanwhile, viewers face a challenge of their own in accepting a movie that feels alternately dreary and patently derivative, culminating in over-plotted set pieces, a conveniently jammed-in narrative device and a final image that beggars belief, patience and goodwill.

Pratt’s character, a Denver mechanic named Jim Preston, is a bland, buff, utterly anonymous “good” guy, who wants to resettle on a distant outpost called Homestead II so he can return to making and repairing things. (A marketing video for the private company running the planet describes Earth as “overpopulated, overpriced and overrated.” Amen, sister!) Far more interesting is Arthur, the bartender with whom Jim strikes up a friendship and who, as channeled by Michael Sheen in an ingratiating performance, bears more than a passing resemblance to Alan Cumming at his most impishly subversive.

Film fans will immediately detect a nod to “The Shining” in the bar sequences, which possess the same echoing sense of dislocation and weirdness. Director Morten Tyldum, working from a script by Jon Spaihts, doesn’t push the sci-fi genre forward as much as quote some of its greatest hits, from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Moon,” “Gravity” and “The Martian” and Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” which Spaihts also wrote.

The most original and intriguing element of “Passengers” turns out to be its most troubling, which is how a passenger named Aurora, played by Jennifer Lawrence, comes to figure in the story. Going into detail about that development wouldn’t be sporting, but it’s safe to say that, like the recent film “Collateral Beauty,” the plot of “Passengers” hinges on a morally dubious act that the filmmakers gloss over in a series of creepy justifications and a sudden third-act reversal.

Although Pratt doesn’t make much of an impact as the generically square-jawed Everyman hero, Lawrence exerts her usual magnetism in “Passengers,” her hair coifed into a meticulously messed-up platinum-blonde bob and her athletic frame slipping easily into a series of gorgeous minimalist outfits. Although Spaihts’s script doesn’t allow for much expressive range, she’s able, in one or two scenes, to infuse real warmth and feisty humor into an otherwise sterile, somewhat dreary setup. That makes it all the more disappointing when her gutsy spirit turns to mush late in the proceedings.

Visually, “Passengers” is attractive, if not terribly imaginative: Dominated by shades of white, chrome and gray, the production design is most memorable when Aurora does her daily laps in the coolest swimming pool in the known universe. Tyldum, best known for directing “The Imitation Game,” isn’t a dynamic stylist as much as a competent executor of what’s on the page. He gets “Passengers” to where it needs to go, which is a resolution in keeping with a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too, no matter how much credibility it strains, or how many political and ethical quandaries it elides.

One and one-half stars. Rated PG-13. Contains sexuality, nudity, action and peril. 116 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

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