It's a reasonable working assumption that Disney and its stellar conflict franchise are going to own the Christmas cinema release schedule for the foreseeable future – at least until audience fatigue sets in, anyway. Until then, it will be a brave studio that puts out anything in the way of popular mainstream genre entertainment, especially in the SF or fantasy genres – although, on the other hand, there will be a lot of fruitful territory for counter-programmers to operate in.
Nevertheless, here is Morten Tyldum's Passengers, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, Village Roadshow, the amusingly-named Original Film Company and a bunch of other entities, a mainstream SF genre movie which has the cojones to go pretty much directly head to head with Disney's latest offering. The script has apparently been knocking about for nearly ten years, so this may just be a case of oh-I'm-sick-of-waiting-let's-just-release-the-thing, but I doubt it.
I rather suspect the producers are relying on the cachet and star power of what is, on paper at least, something of a dream coupling of two of today's most charismatic performers, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. One of my co-workers is fond of proclaiming that Lawrence and Pratt are, essentially, the same person, in terms of their appeal, but I tend to disagree: if this were so, there would be more pictures of Chris Pratt wearing a snake on my laptop's hard drive. Besides, Lawrence has received more Oscar nominations at such a young age than anyone else in history, while Pratt is, um, the amiable leading man guy from a bunch of comic book movies, remakes, and sequels. (It's telling that Lawrence is receiving a considerably bigger paycheque for this movie than her co-star.)
Despite all that, it's Pratt who has by far the bigger presence in the first act of the movie. He plays Jim, a passenger on an interstellar flight to a remote colony world. As the trip takes 120 years even at 50% of the speed of light, the passengers and crew are spending most of the voyage in suspended animation – yet a series of unprecedented events results in system failures that leave mechanic Jim (Pratt) and journalist Aurora (Lawrence) wide awake with almost 90 years of flight time still to go and no-one else for company except an well-mannered android bartender (Michael Sheen).
Well, as you might expect, there is soon a degree of chemical engineering in progress between our two stars, but not quite enough to take their minds off the looming prospect of living out the rest of their lives in total isolation on the giant ship. Plus, the ship's systems are growing increasingly glitchy, which may also cause them some problems in a rather nearer future...
If you've just seen the trailers and so forth for Passengers, you may have come away with the impression that this is a fairly disposable piece of mainstream Hollywood entertainment, a vehicle for the two stars with some cute relationship stuff, a little light physical jeopardy round about the climactic regions, and as many shots of Jennifer Lawrence in something clingy and/or skimpy as they can reasonably get away with. And much of this is indeed the case.
However, those trailers (along with all the other promotional material I've come across) have been quite carefully fashioned to obscure one fairly major plot element. Fair play to them for trying to give the audience a proper surprise, for once, if this is indeed the thinking here – but I rather doubt that's the case. It's quite tricky to write about this without blowing the gaff on the stuff the trailer's keeping quiet about, but basically it gives the film a whole new angle, and one which is not unproblematic. Without going into too much detail, it makes the film rather uncomfortable and creepy to watch.
One consequence of this is that Chris Pratt gets rather better material than Jennifer Lawrence. As I mentioned, I've always found Pratt to be a very amiable screen presence, but I would have said the jury was definitely still out on his ability as an actor of significant range. Well, he's okay here, he doesn't embarrass himself, but on the other hand it's not a revelatory performance either. Lawrence is as immaculate as you might expect, but I doubt her award-nominations tally will be going up this year.
In both cases this is largely the result of the script just not being quite there. The main driver of the first two acts is the issue of loneliness and isolation and how people react to it, but you can't base an action-packed finale on something like that, so there's a rather inelegant shifting of the gears, with the appearance of a new character played by Laurence Fishburne, and a sudden onset of peril and excitement. Now, the film does work quite hard to ensure this doesn't appear completely out of nowhere, and indeed it's also trying its best to smooth over some of the issues with the awkward material mentioned earlier. But in the end just a bit too much is discounted just a little too easily.
(It's a minor issue, but the film's world-building seems a little suspect to me, too: quite apart from the horrible corporate future depicted here – this is almost the colonisation of the galaxy as envisioned by Donald Trump – the ship looks more like a cruise liner than a colony vessel. We are told there have been 'thousands' of trips in the past. Assuming 120 years is standard for each voyage, who is crewing these vessels? Who would want to work on a ship where every round trip propels you the best part of 250 years into the future? It's like The Forever War with nicer decor.)
The film is visually lavish and Morten Tyldum does his best with it, but I don't think it's up to the standards of either The Imitation Game (his last film) or Headhunters (the one before that). Pratt and Lawrence keep things watchable, naturally, but I came away with a strong sense of a film shying away from properly engaging with all the issues it was raising. It's not just that the film brings up some awkward questions – it's that it seems fully aware of these questions and is actively trying to pretend they don't exist. I wouldn't call this a bad film, quite – but I couldn't call it a good one, either.