You’ve Been Waiting for This Kind of Sci-Fi: Passengers

Here’s the highest praise I can give Passengers: I started the movie in a really bad mood, I finished the movie in a really great mood. The best films take you to another place for a while. Passengers does this neatly, with elegance and charm. Make no mistake, this is a love-letter to authentic science fiction masquerading as a big-budget star vehicle.

So as promised, here’s my review of the movie. I’m fascinating by the craft of both storytelling and science fiction. I don’t mind celebrating when somebody does it well. Passengers has enough going for it that both mainstream audiences and hardcore scifi nerds will find things to love. The scifi orthodoxy may find fault with the lightly-handled technology questions, everyone else will settle in to enjoy the ride. Jon Spaihts, straight off his success as the writer of Prometheus and Doctor Strange, knocks it out of the park by taking an otherwise tired ‘what if you were the only human alive’ trope and using the natural charm of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to breathe fresh new life into the concept.

That’s one thing that Passengers does well: blending concept with character, ideas with action. Chris Pratt pulls a great turn in the first act, playing the outer space version of Tom Hanks in Castaway. Then, with the help of amiable android bartender, Michael Sheen, he dives headlong into several’what-if’ survival scenarios you pray never happen to you. Jennifer Lawrence enters the picture, and then we’re hooked until the very last frame.

The chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence approaches Bogey / Bacall levels of critical mass. Even as they muster the courage to save the day, both characters wrestle with the baggage of impossible choices and unforgivable sins. Morten Tyldum uses the talent he displayed in ‘The Imitation Game‘ to pull tremendous amounts of gravitas from Pratt and Lawrence. Everyone is completely invested in their roles and comfortable in the skin of the story.

Passengers is chock-full of stunning galaxy-sweeping visuals that line up neatly with quirky, human moments. I loved Laurence Fishburne‘s character. He arrives later in the film to provide necessary plot development and conflict resolution as we go into the third act. He deftly judges and forgives character’s mistakes as neatly as a surgeon performing open-heart surgery. We’re so invested that we forget that it’s really our heart being played with. Passengers is reaching in to remind us that we matter. Science fiction has been treating its audience like a walking cash register for too long. Passengers is telling us that we matter, both as the audience and as human beings.

Fishburne and Sheen supply the emotional core of the movie, driving the ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine’ message home with everything except a jackhammer. The quiet genius of Passengers comes through how it takes otherwise disposable roles and makes them indispensable. Those characters give Lawrence and Pratt – and us – a chance to view the universe we’re trapped in through wiser eyes. By the time the credits roll, we’re thoroughly pleased and entertained.

Passengers is a rare treat in the modern landscape of science fiction. It’s a one-off, a non-franchise, a movie that takes interesting concepts out to play for a few hours and then puts then back in the box in better condition than they were found in. We haven’t seen movies like this in a while, but in a world where the outside world is looking more and more like a sci-fi dystopia, it’s a welcome tonic. People need the ability to escape from the bad scaries creeping across our TV screens, and Passengers does this for us. In closing, go see it; it does not disappoint. Passengers may not be the best sci-fi film you’ve ever seen, but it’s a perfect movie.