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Passengers review: a terrific premise wasted on a terrible space romance

In space, no one can hear you scream "Restraining order!"

In the long history of movies that heap seemingly unending cruelty on their characters, few make as much effort to make that cruelty look charming and romantic as Passengers does. Two travelers, trapped alone together on a slowly self-destructing starship for just under a century, must find a way to survive, or they’ll go insane or pitch themselves into the cold vacuum of space. So… they go on dates instead. Ah, those two star-crossed lovers! “How sweet,” the movie begs us to say. The appropriate reaction is, “How horrifying!”

A space opera that attempts to blend Gravity with Titanic, Passengers is a pretty little film. It’s visually stylish, and it features two of the most attractive lily-white actors currently working in Hollywood. But underneath this glossy veneer is a truly ugly core. Don’t be fooled. Passengers wants you to believe in the power of love in the face of insurmountable odds, but in the end, it scans as a paean to inhuman, unconscionable behavior, justified in the name of sheer desperation. If Stockholm syndrome is the height of romance, we should all join hands and swear off romance together.

Passengers, written by Jon Spaihts and directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as Jim Preston and Aurora Lane, two voyagers on the interstellar cruise ship Avalon, making their way to a distant planet. But things go wrong about 30 years into Avalon’s 120-year sojourn, and Jim wakes up from suspended animation too soon. From that point on, he’s alone — save for affable robotic bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), who does his best to keep Jim company.

The film is at its best when it shows Jim — who’s charming, but never nails his Cast Away impression — doing his damnedest to stay sane in near-total isolation on the ship. The Avalon is one of the more fascinating bits of ship design to hit screens. The entire vessel is made to look like a living drill making its way through space. Its interior resembles a gorgeously constructed but abandoned hotel, full of recreation rooms, viewing galleries, futuristic helper robots, and no guests. That’s the point: Jim isn’t supposed to be alone, so Tyldum’s camera, always crisp and clear, frequently pulls us close to Jim, Arthur, and later Aurora, before pulling back out to expose their loneliness. This isn’t as unsettling as it sounds. Where this movie could easily reach The Shining levels of dread, the story and Thomas Newman’s score always return to the “sweet yet sad” setting on the dial. But there’s never any question that the situation is dire, and everyone is merely making the best of what they have.

But make no mistake: Passengers is ultimately Jim’s movie. Even though he’s about as bland as the cereal he’s forced to eat every day, the audience is chained to his fate from the outset. So when it’s time for Jim to make an impossible decision about whether to wake someone up for the sake of simple human contact, the audience is also obliged to wrestle with his colossal moral failing. What would anyone do in his shoes? This is a compelling question worth grappling with, and it’s the best thing the movie has going for it. It just makes no sense whatsoever that all this is packaged inside a romance.

Enter: journalist and proto-explorer Aurora Lane (no relation to Lois Lane), who must learn to live with the profound injustice of being woken up by a half-crazed man convinced he’s in love with her. That’s the actual text of the film, and it’s the movie’s principal failing. Aurora is an ambitious (though thinly written) woman looking for adventure and fulfillment, and Lawrence plays her ably, since she isn’t given much beyond “plucky writer and love interest.” But her character exists for Jim, and even though he wrongs her, the movie treats her plight as something for Jim to overcome.

This is deeply disturbing, even enraging, on its face — which Aurora later makes plain by acting out her frustrations with her fists, all over Jim’s face. But the film is mainly concerned with Jim’s good heart and redemptive arc. For a good stretch of the film, the characters are on one long date together, with scene after scene of fun dinners, red-dwarf-gazing, and sex. The movie certainly has its manipulative little charms, the rom-com moments designed to make us root for the two as a couple. But it also means the audience is expected to go along with the romantic premise, even after Aurora discovers the truth. Never mind that Jim lies to her, robs her of her future, and essentially sentences her to a lonely death in space, far from the place she thought she was going. Surely it’s enough that Jim apologizes over the ship’s PA, the score gently cheering him on. Surely love must conquer all, Passengers posits, because in space, no one can hear you scream “Restraining order!”

The ever-present danger on Avalon does provide Passengers with a few incredible action setpieces. In one, gravity fails, leaving Aurora drowning in a levitating pool. In another, the pair are nearly killed by a hole in the ship’s hull. Another character, played by Laurence Fishburne, gets involved to move the plot along, at which point the film doubles down on a familiar horror-movie cliché by killing off the only person of color for actual light years. After all the crisis and catharsis, the film strains to crescendo into something meaningful. But it falls flat thanks to its offensive resolution (spoilers, obviously): instead of living out her dream, Aurora decides to raise space chickens with the toxic man who fell in love with her picture.

For all its visual flourishes and fair-to-decent acting, Passengers is a failure of a movie full of missed opportunities. It’s trying its hardest to tell a deeply human story in all the wrong ways. Instead, it imparts utterly inhumane lessons. It’s the kind of movie whose raw materials could have made for a far better work in more capable hands, because a story that explores the limits of humanity and empathy in the face of extreme isolation is worth telling. Instead, Passengers’ creators made a movie that confuses abject cruelty for love. There’s nothing romantic about that, and the entire universe deserves better.