‘Passengers’ is an overwrought space parable

Sunday, January 8, 2017 - 5:45pm

Take the common icebreaker question: If you were the last person on Earth, what would you do? Now, consider that you are no longer on Earth, but on the commercial spacecraft Avalon, traveling hundreds of years through space to a faraway colonial planet. With slick CGI backdrops, “Passengers” hurtles an age-old question of loneliness and humanity into a new age.

Due to a technology hiccup, Jim (Chris Pratt, “Jurassic World”) is jolted awake from his hibernation pod ninety years before expected. With the rest of the five thousand passengers still asleep and no other hope of rescue, he reads Aurora’s (Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy”) background papers and falls in love with her and wakes her up. Meanwhile, the spacecraft continues malfunctioning and the problems eventually become too big to ignore.

For a movie about loneliness, “Passengers” is too self-conscious of its own silence. The beginning starts off promisingly: Jim’s voice echoing against deserted hallways, caustic montages of him sitting alone in large rooms full of unoccupied chairs.

Then, after a pause, it panics and sputters out unnecessary dialogue, bringing in robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen, “Masters of Sex”), who looks like a human and speaks like one, dispensing wisdom and serving as Jim’s emotional rock. Though arguably the most interesting character, his friendship interrupts the silence needed for the gravity of the situation sink in. At no point does it feel like Jim is truly alone. Pratt’s beard growth is the only indicator that a year in complete solitude has passed.

“Passengers” also attempts to untangle a bevy of philosophical questions: The idea that emotional connection distinguishes human and robot, whether love is fated to be, the ethics behind hurting another to save oneself.

Though it’s clear that the film’s intent for mixing humor and love with danger is to find moments of humanity in hopeless situations, it doesn’t execute either well. To pull off either a “Titanic”-style doomed romance or an intellectual challenge successfully, a movie has to pick between one or the other. It doesn’t.

The ethical dilemmas complicate Jim and Aurora’s romance (if it could even be called that) and “Passengers” fails to finish answering what it started. It doesn’t adequately contextualize that their relationship was born out of loneliness and desperation, not chemistry. It incorrectly misrepresents Aurora’s forgiveness as stemming from love, not necessity. Portraying their relationship with a typical romance storyline brainwashes us to think Jim’s disturbing actions are okay.

Based on its marketing, “Passengers” should have succeeded as a thriller alone, but even the action sequences fell flat. It dedicates screen time primarily to Lawrence and Pratt’s relationship, only adding thrill in its final quarter, almost as an afterthought. Everything feels too easy, ends too quickly. The ship’s commander is awakened, for no reason other than to grant access to critical areas. Then, every problem follows a pattern of Aurora wailing, “What do we do?” and Jim, who is a mechanic, telling her the solution and immediately fixing it himself. Aurora’s only role is to look distressed and repeat “This is bad,” as if the flashing red lights and sirens weren’t enough to clue us in.

Jumping between action scenes, philosophical questions, jest and romance, “Passengers” aims for grandeur, trying to pack in love and life and everything in between, following the style of its obvious inspirations “Titanic” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Yet it overreaches, trying for everything and offering nothing. Though Jim has no shortage of time, “Passengers” hurriedly chokes each half-baked idea by the next.