much as the film is about two people meeting and connecting after being awoken on a colonization spaceship decades before their planned arrival, there is a human dilemma that drives the conflict of the film.
It's necessary to discuss that moral question when talking about the strengths and weaknesses of the movie, though it may constitute a spoiler for those who wish to avoid the question all together.
Passengers puts its main character Jim, played by Chris Pratt, in an impossible position: either live out the rest of his days alone after accidentally being woken from hibernation 90 years before the spaceship he's on arrives at its destination planet which he is supposed to help colonize, or awaken someone else who will be forced to suffer the same fate with him.
Considering Jennifer Lawrence also stars in this film, it's easy to guess which option Jim chooses. But the exploration of that concept -- which would you choose: to live your life alone or condemn someone else to suffer the same fate? -- is both where Passengers has its biggest successes and most disappointing failures.
Though the Morten Tyldum directed movie is set against a sci-fi backdrop, its primary concern is exploring both the lead up and fallout to Jim's decision to awaken Aurora, Lawrence's character. It's immediately apparent why these were the two perfect actors for this project; they carry the film, despite Michael Sheen and Laurence Fishburne having supporting roles.
Only actors as immediately likable and emotionally dynamic as Pratt and Lawrence would be able to pull off a film that requires this much heavy lifting, and their easy chemistry makes up for many of Passengers' misses. Pratt in particular has to fill a lot of the film by himself, and he makes a convincing case for Jim as he makes his tough choice and then deals with the fallout of it.
The biggest problem with the film is it doesn't follow that dilemma through to the end. At a certain point, Passengers goes a more Hollywood route with its story, and suddenly the focus isn't on the human conflict but instead an impending disaster that had been set up carefully throughout the length of the movie. Because of that, certain characters are let off the hook for decisions more easily than they should be, and the Passengers doesn't have as big an impact as the theoretical conversations it raises could have.
Passengers creates an interesting sci-fi world, offering enough of a taste of the futuristic backdrop to please lovers of the genre. It's more interested in living in the world than exploring it, especially since the movie is set in space where the fact there isn't an easy connection to the outside is a major part of the narrative.
The ship, the Avalon, is a gorgeous, pristine setting, and though some of the visual effects in space and conveying zero gravity situations aren't perfect, across the board the space sequences are beautiful. Similarly, Thomas Newman's score becomes a character on its own, intruding into the storytelling in just the right ways to accent significant moments, alternating between discordant and harmonious.
Passengers is not hard science fiction like this year's Arrival, and never achieves the same highs as movies of its ilk like Moon or The Martian. The third act is where it stumbles, throwing away some of its more theoretical discussions to go in a simpler direction. It feels familiar in a lot of ways, from a climactic scene reminiscent of a similar Pratt moment in Guardians of the Galaxy to a space walk that feels straight out of Wall-E. The film falls back on familiar tropes, like a cable that pulls taut just shy of where someone needs to reach, and rings a bit false with resolutions that feel implausible within the world its created.
When Passengers is firing on all cylinders, though, it's well worth the journey. There are several truly breathtaking sequences, including one where the spaceship shifts into zero gravity while Aurora is in the swimming pool. Though the script is sometimes a bit too on the nose, Pratt and Lawrence pop on the screen no matter what they're doing, and Jon Spaihts's story offers both of them emotionally dynamic opportunities. Sheen also is a standout as the android bartender Arthur, who is often and successfully the movie's comic relief.
Though its conclusion falls short of completely satisfying, Passengers' impeccably cast leads make the film well worth the journey. It's a sci-fi story worth the time of fans of the genre, even if its focus is less on the world its creating and more on the impossible situations it places its characters in. Passengers explores the idea of the journey being more important than the destination, and the same can be said of the experience of viewing the film itself.