Exhibit 2001 for the proposition that a bad ending can ruin an otherwise good movie: Passengers, a glossy interstellar vehicle for some provocative moral entanglements that ultimately implodes from the pressure of its star-driven, crowd-pleasing mission. The film’s December release date suggests it once harbored awards-season aspirations. Instead, it just ends up lost in space.
Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is one of more than five thousand people in cryogenic sleep aboard the Starship Avalon, on a 120-year voyage to colonize the distant outpost Homestead II. The ship’s sylvan destination stands in contrast to Earth, which the film hints has been overburdened by population growth and excessive mechanization. A mysterious malfunction causes Jim to awaken ninety years early; unable to return to hibernation, he’s left to roam alone the mammoth vessel, a sort of cruise liner replete with futuristic amenities. His only quasi-human interaction is with an affable android barkeep named Arthur (Michael Sheen), apparently coming from tending bar at The Shining’s Overlook Hotel.
As yearlong madness creeps in, Jim develops an obsession with Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a sleeping beauty whose video profile reveals she’s a witty writer who looks like, well, Jennifer Lawrence. Jim, desperate for companionship, rouses Aurora, blaming the same malfunction that woke him. Amore blooms, and awful truths unspool against the backdrop of Jim’s turpitude and director Morten Tyldum’s (The Imitation Game) preoccupation with Lawrence’s lithe figure. “It’s murder!” Aurora exclaims, and while not technically correct, Jim’s act is just as selfish.
Passengers’ stylish, well-conceived milieu is a technological pleasure palace stocked with a bevy of recreational choices and themed dining options, which are manned by robots with accents to match the cuisine. Several moments are visually arresting, including a sequence in which the spacecraft suddenly goes zero-gravity with Aurora in a swimming pool. It’s a sterile setting for the film’s incendiary narrative underpinning. It’s Eden before the fall, populated by a neo-Adam and Eve waiting to be cast out for their sins.
The film also includes a cavalcade of conspicuous movie allusions, from the star-crossed lovers aboard a sinking ship in Titanic (there’s even an ersatz iceberg) to the cavernous cabin fever in The Shining. One scene ticks Gravity off the list before it riffs on The Martian. Laurence Fishburne pops up as a ship’s crewman, a dreamlike deus ex machina that’s more the Morpheus of mythology than of The Matrix.
With its tantalizing setup, Passengers could have found half a dozen better ways to conclude than with the unearned path of redemption, self-sacrifice, and happily-ever-after it reflexively follows. It smacks of test-audience electioneering and/or studio meddling, all in service of a feel-good finale that’s anything but. Thousands of oblivious passengers aboard the Avalon missed this disaster. If only the rest of us had been so lucky.