​“Passengers” jettisons compelling premise for genre conventions

Latest sci-fi blockbuster is poorly realized

“Passengers” has all the elements of a fresh, inquisitive take on the exhausted science-fiction genre. The big-budget celestial romance is the latest effort from Oscar-nominated director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game,” “Headhunters”) and features two undeniable movie stars — Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.

Despite this talent at its core, “Passengers” succumbs to banal plot contrivances that are inexplicably abstract that the film becomes nothing more than an incoherently assembled sci-fi dud.

Pratt plays Jim, one of more than 5,000 passengers on the pristine Avalon starship en route to a colony planet, Homestead II. Jim awakens from his hibernated state prematurely when a meteor slams into the ship. Aghast, Jim discovers he is the only conscious human.

The captivating premise of facing existential loneliness in space reaches disturbing heights once Jim becomes fixated on Aurora (Lawrence). Several of the qualities listed in the rom-com playbook apply to Aurora — she’s blonde, she’s a writer, she lives in New York and she loves coffee. As Jim’s infatuation with this thinly-written character intensifies, he falls into a moral conundrum, and “Passengers” poses a riveting ethical question — should Jim accept his fate of extreme alienation until death, or should he sentence Aurora to share this fate with him?

Jim pursues the latter decision, and though this astonishing act of selfishness cements the disturbing premise of “Passengers,” it also marks the point where the film begins to lose its steam. Had screenwriter Jon Spaihts explored this premise to the macabre territory it demands, the film could have compellingly commented on voyeurism, loneliness and self-sacrifice.

Instead, an assortment of familiar ideas arise with hackneyed suspense, grandiose declarations of love and characters who only exist to advance the plot. These contrivances culminate in a dizzyingly muddled climax where character motivations are subservient to generic action sequences, making the remaining glimmer of the film’s potential deteriorate on both a human and sci-fi level.

With the eerie undercurrent of Jim and Aurora’s dynamic impossible to set aside, Pratt and Lawrence have difficulty bringing the romance to life. Their chemistry mostly falls flat, which can be attributed to the clunky script and the disparity of their respective performances. Lawrence offers some weight to an overdone character and pulls off lines like “I’m a journalist. I know people,” and “I almost forgot my life is in ruins,” as well as one could. Her performance, along with the sleek production design of the Avalon, gives “Passengers” a bit of life.

Though Jim may be sporadically charming in a bland, bro-ish sort of way, he has few discernable personality traits other than “creepy” and “selfish.” It takes Pratt out of his element as the affable goofball he typically portrays, like in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Lego Movie.” In “Passengers,” he adopts a one-size-fits-all serious face, rendering his attempts to convey anguish or fear so unbelievable that they are almost comical.

Near the end of the film, Aurora asks Jim what they should be looking for in reference to a malfunction of the Avalon. “Something broken. Something big,” Jim replies. The same can be said for “Passengers” itself — the “something broken” is the missed opportunity of crafting a standout sci-fi film deserving of the talent and charisma behind it.

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