Jim Preston wakes up alone. Not your ordinary, alarm-clock-goes-off-in-the-morning alone. Really alone. Series-premiere-of-a-Walking-Dead-franchise alone. The hibernation pod in which he has been sleeping for decades pops open and a hologram of a woman appears to inform him that his 120-year interstellar voyage to the human colony of Homestead II is all but complete.
The hologram guides Jim (Chris Pratt) to his cabin to freshen up in preparation for meeting some of the 5,000 other thawed-out colonists who’ve accompanied him on the starship Avalon. But when he shows up for “Learning Group 38,” he’s the only attendee. Likewise, when he stops by the automated cafeteria, there’s no one else there. Even the “Grand Concourse” mall is devoid of shoppers. What’s going on?
What’s going on, alas, is that the Avalon took damage crossing an asteroid field, which, among other minor glitches, caused Jim’s pod to short-circuit, waking him—and only him—90 years too early. So Jim tries all the obvious fixes: He talks to several of the ship’s computers; but none can even fathom the possibility that he has been awakened early—this has evidently never happened before—let alone offer him any meaningful assistance. He attempts to wake the ship’s crew; but they are deep in their own slumber and locked behind an utterly impregnable bulkhead. He is, as noted, alone.
Well, not completely alone: The ship’s lounge features a cheery robot bartender who is named Arthur and played with twinkly charm by Michael Sheen. (He is, essentially, a less ominous version of Lloyd from the Overlook Hotel.) Arthur offers Jim some generic bartender sentiment about taking each day as it comes—I should warn that this greeting-card-level bromide will make a return appearance later in the film—and Jim takes the advice to heart. As days cycle into weeks, and weeks into months, Jim avails himself of the ship’s luxury amenities, moving into a nicer cabin, shooting hoops, playing a video dance game, and growing a Tom-Hanks-in-Castaway beard. And, with Arthur’s help, he drinks. After all, as Elton John long ago noted, it’s lonely out in space. And given that it’s gonna be a long long time, Jim figures he might as well be hi-i-igh as a kite.
I’d like to offer a brief digression here to point out that none of this setup makes a lick of sense. (Those who prefer can skip to the next paragraph.) A whole ship fully up and running—the pool, the mall, the game arcades, the French and Mexican restaurants with their crudely accented robotic waiters, the self-serve space-walk facilities(!), and, of course, cheery old Arthur—despite the fact that no human being is supposed to be awake for another 90 years? And not a single one of these systems is capable of sensing that anything is wrong with Jim’s premature presence or of rousing the crew? It’s utterly ridiculous—though, I suppose, no more ridiculous than the fact that Jim spends a whole year drinking crummy coffee because he doesn’t have the “gold level ticket” required for macchiatos, but this in no way prevents him from relocating from his tiny, assigned cabin to a posh duplex penthouse.
But back to the story. One day, when Jim is at a particularly low ebb, he happens to gaze into the pod of one of his many fellow passengers and see a pretty blonde named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). Smitten, he looks her up in the ship’s files and discovers that she is a writer (though all available evidence suggests a rather bad one) whose sense of adventure led her to travel to Homestead II in search of a great story.
Ever more convinced that Aurora is his dream girl, Jim agonizes for months over whether or not he should wake her. (Yes, this is way, way stalker-y. Also, I’ll note that while Pratt is good at many things, conveying a state of agonized deliberation is not among them.) On the one hand, Jim would be stealing Aurora’s future from her, dooming her to live, and die, alone on the ship with him. On the other hand, it’s been a whole year and he’s really really lonely. Arthur, meanwhile, is no help at all with this massive, ethical dilemma. “Jim,” he explains, “these are not robot questions.”
Jim eventually does wake Aurora, of course, because paying Jennifer Lawrence $20 million to lie asleep in a tube all movie long would be money ill-spent even by Hollywood standards. At first, Jim conceals what he did from Aurora, and the two begin to fall in love. Later, she finds out, and she is appropriately nonplussed. And a bit later than that, the ship’s ongoing malfunctions start to escalate, necessitating a series of life-or-death action sequences involving our heroes. I’ll leave the details to the curious, with the caveat that nothing that happens is particularly compelling or unexpected.
So what kind of a movie is Passengers? It’s difficult to say. Directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) from a script by Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange), it begins as a kind of high-concept science-fiction film, but ultimately does very little with its initial premise. (Jim and Aurora do not, for instance, contemplate rousing further passengers, or follow any of several other potentially intriguing narrative paths.) Once Aurora is awakened, the movie takes the shape of a romance. But this storyline feels half-hearted and unfinished as well, and it is not helped by the decidedly meager chemistry between the leads. And as for the big action finales, well, the less said, probably, the better.
Ironically, Passengers is at its most evocative when capturing a state of utter tedium, in the early scenes where an ever-more-bearded Jim is eating a bowl of cereal, or lazily shooting hoops, or even sitting in the ship’s movie theater, facing down eternity. In those moments, I felt I was right there with him.