Passengers should be the perfect Chris Pratt–Jennifer Lawrence vehicle. It has figured out how to isolate, with laser precision, the charisma of two of Hollywood’s most charismatic stars—by plunking them onto a massive interstellar cruise ship where they are quite literally the only characters, save for a few humanoid robots and a skimpy Laurence Fishburne cameo. It is resourceful in finding ways for them to radiate their personalities at us and one another: Here they are giggling as they’re serenaded over a candelit dinner by a chorus of droids with French accents. Here they are dunking on each other during a one-on-one basketball game. Here they are grooving to DDR like a couple of inexplicably ripped preteens at a middle school dance. But for audiences expecting a two-hour charm offensive, Passengers is not the movie you think you’re going to see. It’s something considerably darker and dumber.
In director Morten Tyldum’s second English-language movie (his first was The Imitation Game), Pratt and Lawrence play Jim and Aurora, a mechanic and aristocratic writer, respectively. They are two of the titular passengers on a 120-year cruise to Homestead II, where they will build a new life millions of miles away from “overpopulated, overpriced, and overrated” Earth. Their vessel, the Starship Avalon, is full of some 5,000 humans and crewmembers whose metabolic function has been suspended for the journey. They’ll all be awakened four months before landing—just enough time to enjoy such amenities as a swanky sushi joint and a swimming pool with a view of the stars. Except that Pratt’s space pod malfunctions, rousing him 90 years too early.
This is where the movie’s trailers have misled you: Jim and Aurora are not in fact two shipwrecked souls who serendipitously meet in space. Instead, Jim, wracked by loneliness after a year in luxe isolation, wakes Aurora up himself, essentially dooming her to live and die at his side.
That year of Jim’s isolation is the best part of the movie. There are nice world-building details: the virtual concierges chirping “our hibernation pods are failsafe!” on loop when Jim presses for information about why his pod failed; Jim’s realization that “gold class passengers” get fancy breakfasts while his meals are terrible; the cluster of floor-cleaning bots snapping up crumbs from the floor like pigeons. A particular highlight is Michael Sheen’s performance as a bartender droid named Arthur, a perfect simulacrum of human charm who slings well-timed winks and zingers but can’t actually process input more complex than a martini order.
Of course, even Arthur is a prop designed to make the two marquee stars seem all the more warm and authentic by comparison. Pratt continues to be one of the most personable on-screen presences in Hollywood. He projects none of the shellacked confidence of most action heroes; his Jim is a sweet sitcom goofus trapped in a Renaissance sculpture’s body. Meanwhile Lawrence’s Aurora, through no fault of her own, is so banal that the movie’s pathos frosts over as soon as she begins talking. She is the one charged with animating lines like “We plan our lives like we’re the captains of our fate, but we’re passengers; we go where fate takes us.” It obviously evokes another story of a working-class guy romancing a rich girl on a malfunctioning ship, but where Titanic leans into its old-timey, ladies-first clichés as a swoon delivery device, Passengers wants so badly to be modern that its characterization of Aurora as a breathy damsel is much more head-scratching. Pratt apparently has a yen for such gender dynamics: the Jim-Aurora relationship also has echoes of Jurassic World, in which Bryce Dallas Howard played the high-strung workaholic teetering away from dinosaurs in heels and Pratt was her low-key, earthbound savior. In Passengers, Lawrence has big writerly dreams and a bottomless supply of posh space outfits; Pratt is the salt-of-the-earth oaf whose main skill is fixing things. “You die, I die,” Aurora tells Jim at one point, and that is more a practical statement than a romantic one: He’s the one who knows how to dismember an airlock door with a soldering iron, after all.
Early in the film, Jim really wrestles with the moral conundrum at the center of the plot—driving himself crazy, muttering into the mirror as he tries to convince himself not to wake her up, forcing Arthur to parry with him about moral abstractions that the droid’s synthetic intellect cannot possibly grasp. But when Jim caves and awakens her, the movie shifts into a different key altogether. It becomes a love story with a nightmarish pall hanging over it. If Passengers is framed as a drama, it also hits all the expected emotional beats of a rom-com. Aurora discovers Jim’s secret; she gets very mad; she goes on fuming solo jogs around the spaceship while cursing him out; in the end, of course, she forgives him. So there is something uncanny about seeing the rom-com formula—in which a breakup’s catalyst is often the discovery of some kind of benign deception—applied to a premise that is so intractable and dire. Fishburne, briefly appearing as a crewmember who shares some useful technical expertise, sympathetically describes Jim as a “drowning man.” Drowning men always try to grab at someone else as they’re going down, he explains. They can’t really help it; it’s human instinct. This is hardly an inspiring character defense. At least Jack didn’t drag Rose into the depths with him.
By advertising itself as a fun intergalactic romp, The Martian with a dose of meet-cute, Passengers has smuggled some very heavy themes into a big-budget December movie that isn’t equipped to grapple with them at all. It’s a weird little bit of misdirection for holiday moviegoing audiences who thought they were just going to see some flirty cosmic adventures and Chris Pratt’s butt. If Passengers had tackled its themes with insight and emotional resonance, such trickery would be worth applauding. Instead, Pratt’s native charisma begins to feel manipulative. We are clearly meant to sympathize with Jim, to push ourselves to understand the mortal desperation that compelled him to trap an unwitting woman in purgatory alongside him. Passengers introduces thorny ethical questions about consent and then smilingly dispatches them, all in the name of a love story that’s as picturesque and empty as the Starship Avalon itself.