Film Review: Passengers, Cringe-Worthy

Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures
Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures

Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear. This review contains spoilers. Proceed with caution.

I’ll never quite understand the mentality that dictates that you can only like a movie if you whole heartedly agree with the decisions of the protagonist. It’s quite often the flaws in a character (or a real human being, for that matter) that makes them interesting and worth watching for two hours in the first place. So when a film character makes a decision I disagree with—or even find deplorable (to use one of the more popular words of 2016)—my first thought is “Okay, why did that person do that? What were the contributing factors to that decision?” And very often, the answers to these questions make the movie all the more compelling.

In many ways, the new sci-fi drama Passengers is all about a single bad decision. Everything else is window dressing as far as I’m concerned, and it’s an astonishing amount of window dressing. As a result, assuming you don’t instantly dismiss the film once said decision is carried out, is to consider why one character does what he does, and how he reacts once this fairly terrible deed is done. By casting an actor as inherently likable as Chris Pratt, it’s clear that the filmmakers don’t want us to think space traveller Jim Preston is a terrible person. I’m fairly certain the idea is that sometimes, even those with the best of intentions, commit thoughtless and reprehensible acts in moments of mental and moral weakness.

Let’s back things up here. The premise of Passengers involves the Starship Avalon, which is flying through space with more than 5,200 passengers and crew on the way to a colony planet called Homestead II. Because the journey will take 120 years, everyone is placed in hibernation pods to sleep for nearly all of the journey. Problems begin when, about 30 years into the trip, a meteor shower causes portions of the ship to malfunction briefly (the ship self repairs pretty quickly), and somehow Jim’s pod defrosts him 90 years prematurely. Since he’s unable to re-freeze himself, he comes to the realization that he’ll be long dead before any of his fellow travelers wake up. Worse than that, he’ll likely go insane from loneliness, with his only companion being bartender droid Arthur (who possesses excellent listening skills and is played by Michael Sheen).

Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures
Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures

The Avalon craft is set up like a fancy ocean liner, with cabins for both filthy rich and not-so-rich passengers, as well as restricted areas for crew members only. Jim is an engineer, so he’s a little more capable of fixing and deconstructing certain elements of the ship by reading the instruction manuals, but he’s unable to figure out what went wrong or how to fix it. But after about a year, a depression sets in (and a sadness beard grows), and Jim begins to think about throwing himself out the airlock, rather than face a lifetime alone. At some point in his wanderings around the ship, he spots the hibernating Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), he looks up her video profile in the ship’s memory banks, and falls in love with the young writer/journalist. And this is about the point where things get a bit sketchy and spoilery. I’ll try to watch myself, but be warned…

Jim becomes fixated on the sleeping woman in a stalkerish way, but tells himself (and Arthur) that he won’t wake her up and condemn her to the same fate as him just because he’s lonely. I think it’s important to note that a sizable chunk of the film at this juncture is spent dealing with Jim’s anxiety over his desire for company versus giving Aurora a death sentence. He doesn’t just lay eyes on the prettiest woman he can find and say, “I’ll have her.” He’s well aware that disabling her pod would be wrong, but his unstable brain wins the day, and the end result is the same: he wakes her up—without telling her, of course. I still also mention that it becomes clear even before he does this that there is something wrong with the ship that is causing certain smaller systems to flicker or temporarily fail, so it’s not hard for her to believe that her pod malfunctioned much like Jim’s did.

For a time at least, Passengers wants us to forget about Jim’s ultimate selfish act, and director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (who has writing credits on Doctor Strange and Prometheus, among other recent titles) bombard the screen with some truly lovely chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence, who spend about a year getting to know each other and eventually falling in love. All the while, Jim knows in the back of his head that he must at some point tell the truth about how Aurora’s pod “malfunctioned.” As an audience member, our instinct is the root for the good-looking people to get together because that’s how we’ve been conditioned to think. All the while, we don’t want such awful behavior to go unpunished, and not surprisingly to anyone, Aurora eventually does find out the truth, though not from Jim, which probably infuriates her more. As a result, she rejects him completely and he doesn’t fight her on it.

Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures
Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures

Passengers has more than a few cop-outs at the story level, especially toward the final third of the film. Without going into too much depth, a third person enters the picture and gives Jim and Aurora little choice but to work together in the hopes of fixing what is becoming an increasingly dysfunctional vessel. It also becomes clear that, even if he hadn’t woken her up, Aurora’s life might have been mortal danger because of the ship’s many issues. The backwards logic concludes that if the Avalon is to be saved, they will have to work together, so in a way, he did a good thing for her and the remaining souls on board, right? Right?! The fuzzier the reasoning got, the more I squirmed in my seat from watching the film’s awkwardly carried out, standard-issue conclusion.

I’ll always be an admirer of controversial and difficult films in which characters and situations exist in the vast grey areas between good and bad. Which is not to say that it lives in that space; it does not. What Jim does is 100 percent wrong. But I will absolutely give the film some credit for making his struggle a key building block of the film’s drama. I don’t think the piece ever asks us to accept or like his behavior, but it does want us to understand his mindset and the things that might drive a person to such things. It’s a much darker film than any of the marketing for the film has led you to believe, and thankfully Sheen’s Arthur is there to lift the mood somewhat. The production design of the Avalon is actually quite impressive, and the way the ship caters to the needs of its future residents (including these early arrivals) is really fun to explore as the characters figure out how things work.

As I always have and will continue to do for as long as I’m lucky enough to do this job, I encourage you to see the film if anything about it strikes your fancy and, by all means, make up your own mind about whether Passengers a wretched blueprint for bad behavior, or a character study about a mentally unstable man. The two options may not be as far apart as you think or as you’re comfortable with, but stop allowing others (even me) to make up your mind for you about cringe-worthy movies and take the plunge if you’re feeling fearless or reckless.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.