It’s easier to start a good movie than to end a good movie. That’s the main takeaway from “Passengers,” a promising science fiction film that tries to end with a bang but leaves its audiences with a whimper.
If you’ve seen any of the ads, you already know that “Passengers” zeroes in on two of Hollywood’s biggest stars: Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. In fact, for most of the film, Pratt and Lawrence are the only actors, performing against the backdrop of a graceful and magnificent spaceship that is transporting thousands of hibernating occupants to a distant colony planet named Homestead 2.
Pratt plays Jim Preston, a mechanic who has booked passage on the 120-year space voyage in order to start a new life in a place where people still need to work with their hands. Lawrence plays Aurora Lane, a writer with a different plan in mind. Determined to pen the ultimate story, Aurora’s idea is to fly to Homestead 2, do some research and fly back, where she will write her epic within the comforting view of New York City’s famed Chrysler Building (assuming it still exists in 250 years).
But the best-laid plans of Aurora and Jim go astray once their ship encounters an asteroid field about 30 years into the trip, and Jim is mistakenly roused from his hibernation sleep. Fortunately, most of the ship’s accommodations are up and functioning, so Jim spends about a year trying to figure out what happened, with only an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) to keep him company.
Arthur is awfully reminiscent of Lloyd, the bartender Jack Nicholson encounters in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” and early on, director Morten Tyldum gives “Passengers” the vibe of a hard-core science fiction film. Arthur offers Jim the party line and insists that the reputation of the hibernation pods is impeccable, but as Jim explores what threatens to be the setting for the rest of his natural life, periodic glitches suggest a nefarious and growing threat.
Things get even more complicated once Jim decides he can’t go on alone and revives Aurora, a pretty woman he’s never even met. Jim leads Aurora to believe that her hibernation pod malfunctioned as well, and once she passes through her requisite, “we have to fix this” phase, they begin to settle into a serious, or at least sexual, relationship.
The best science fiction has a way of highlighting the drama of humanity in the midst of exotic technology, and as Jim and Aurora move forward, the plot of “Passengers” feels like a ticking time bomb, exploring questions of ethics and philosophy while the Milky Way floats ever silently outside their windows. But once the bomb goes off, and the pair eventually has to deal with the malfunction that started the trouble in the first place, intrigue turns to action, and “Passengers” opts for flash and melodrama over the kind of substance it hinted at early on.
Pratt’s blue-collar sensibilities are a nice foil for Lawrence’s sophistication (could Aurora Lane be a pen name?), and Sheen feels perfect as the cryptic Arthur. Tyldum proved that he has a knack for drama and suspense with 2014s “The Imitation Game” but with “Passengers,” the suspense feels only half-built and then abandoned. It is a gorgeous movie to watch, but an experience that ultimately feels unsatisfying.
“Passengers” is rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity and action/peril; running time: 116 minutes.