A Popcorn Flick, not an Oscar Contender (and that’s nothing to complain about)


Passengers (2016) Poster Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt

Could any place be lonelier than space?

Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) are about to find out. They’re the only two people woken up from hyper sleep on the Starship Avalon during its voyage to the colony planet Homestead II. Lucky for them, the Avalon is a luxury starship that provides anything you need with the swipe of a wristband. Not so lucky: They still have 90 years until the ship arrives at its destination and the rest of the passengers and crew wake up. And when the ship starts malfunctioning, they only have each other in the fight to see tomorrow.

Let’s get something out of the way: If you’re trying to continue your streak of year-end Oscar bait viewing, Passengers is not a box you need to worry about checking off your list. This film has far too many lines about reactors breaking down and malfunctioning hyper sleep pods to earn that kind of attention. The script never finds a worthy way for Laurence Fishburne’s very supporting character to work into the story, and Pratt and Lawrence sometimes push the edges of overacting and underacting.

But now that we’ve addressed the issues that prevent it from becoming a proper Oscar contender, let’s celebrate what it is: A near-perfect popcorn flick.

Pratt and Lawrence glow with chemistry, both comedic and dramatic. The value of this spark can’t be underestimated, either. Since most scenes are just one or the both of them, this story would have been kaput if their relationship were unbelievable. They can play yearning and heartache individually, but the film is even better when they play off of each other. In fact, I think they’re the best-matched romantic duo I’ve seen in a movie this year.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence star in Columbia Pictures' PASSENGERS.

And though some of Passengers feels familiar (the strange combination of Gravity, Groundhog Day, Home Alone, The Princess Bride, and Titanic came to mind), I haven’t seen a movie like this in awhile. A romance at its heart, it also plays with elements of the adventure, disaster, and comedy genres, and it’s capable with all of them. Even though it’s not a true action film, the CGI is used creatively and to create moments of suspense. At under 2 hours, it makes Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse seem a little silly for needing 2½ hours each to tell stories that make you feel, laugh, and tense up—and that’s not including all of the previous chapters that introduced the main characters and primary conflicts.

It’s a story that takes hold of you and leaves you feeling better than you did when you came in. We could always use films like that, but in 2016, we might need it more than ever.

What I can’t figure out: This film’s release date. Passengers would have been a perfect late July release. With its grabbing premise, energetic tone, and the star power of its two leads, this could have been a summer hit. But coming out less than a week after another (albeit very different) space opera with Star Wars in the title and in the thick of Oscar season? It doesn’t fit well with either of those scenarios, much less both at the same time.

Bartender Arthur (MICHAEL SHEEN) behind the Grand Concourse Bar in Columbia Pictures' PASSENGERS.

The quality of directing doesn’t live up to the potential of Morten Tyldum (director of Best Picture nominee The Imitation Game), and the writing doesn’t live up to the potential of Jon Spaihts (writer of Prometheus). But what they’ve created is still lovely, and some of it works excellently, like Michael Sheen’s android character (a distant cousin of Michael Fassbender’s Prometheus role, I presume). Passengers is solid and special enough to deserve a decent run at the box office, but though it remains to be seen, I fear the timing is not in its favor. While that wouldn’t be career-ending for Pratt, Lawrence, Tyldum, or Spaihts, it does make me nervous for the future of movies.

Hollywood has a habit of pulling the wrong lessons from failures, and I would hate to see romances, original scripts, and non-franchise adventure films suffer if Passengers underperforms. Passengers is meant to be a self-contained story, not to spawn a new universe or franchise. And though it’s not the best film of the year, it speaks competently on issues of human purpose and connection. It’s a story that takes hold of you and leaves you feeling better than you did when you came in. We could always use films like that, but in 2016, we might need it more than ever.