Oftentimes, critics use the word “contrived” to describe a film, despite the term being a bit misleading. After all, a screenplay, by definition, is nothing but contrived, in the sense of it being planned. “Contrived” also means forced, of course, but even in that sense, some of the greatest films ever are filled with contrivances. While great directors can help distract from such contrivances, there are limits, limits that a screenplay like that of Passengers, well, pass.
Passengers tells a tale of science-fiction romance that might be characterized as Gravity-lite meets Titanic-lite. The Starship Avalon, transporting a crew of 258 and 5,000 passengers to the world of Homestead II, hits a snag that results in one poor sap waking early from his suspended-animation slumber—90 years, 3 weeks, and 1 day early to be precise. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) faces a life lived out totally alone, except for the cold-comfort company of an android bartender named Arthur (an amusing Michael Sheen, annoyingly shot and costumed like he's in The Shining). The right thing to do, or so he thinks, is to suffer out an aimless existence alone, but he cannot shake the temptation to wake one of his fellow passengers, particularly a cute sleeping beauty he spots and begins to research. She’s a writer named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), and eventually Preston cannot help but do something terrible: consign her, by waking her early, to share in his bleak fate.
In classic rom-com fashion, this secret stays hidden for timed detonation as a clueless Aurora gradually accepts her nightmarish situation and learns to love the one she’s with. The two bond over meals, a holograph dance game, observation-deck wonders and a spacesuited jaunt into the stars. As it must, the truth eventually comes out, threatening to drive apart the only two conscious souls on the Starship Avalon. The conspicuous contrivances essentially begin thereafter, in a series of developments too spoilery to detail. What begins as an intriguing premise based on high-stakes “what if”s shrinks in imagination as the pair begins to face crises akin to a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, with malfunctions cropping up that threaten to end the ship’s odyssey long before its scheduled arrival at Homestead II.
The impressively sleek production under director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) yields some pretty darn impressive special effects sequences, but screenwriter Jon Spaihts (co-writer of Prometheus and Doctor Strange) loses focus on the story’s moral dimension and loses his nerve when it comes to more provocative possibilities around the film’s ending. The movie-star charm of Lawrence and Pratt goes a long way, but by the film’s end, you may feel you’ve gone much further than you’d care to with the Passengers in question.