Love blossoms in space in Morten Tyldum’s “Passengers,” but viewers are likely to experience a very different emotion. The movie suggests that its makers have watched Stanley Kubrick’s films entirely too many times. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt bring some star wattage to the story, which ladles romance over multiple beats from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and adds a defanged element from “The Shining” for good measure. But despite their undeniable charms the picture doesn’t come within light years of its inspirations—the result of Jon Spaihts’ undercooked script, Tyldums’ thoroughly pedestrian direction and a physical production (designed by Guy Hendrix Dyas) that’s sleekly antiseptic but ultimately rather dull.
The story is set on the Avalon, a huge privately-owned spaceship that’s carrying five thousand passengers and over two hundred and fifty crew on a hundred-and-twenty-year voyage to a faraway settlement called Homestead II. Every human on board is in a state of suspended animation that’s scheduled to end when the vessel comes within hailing distance of the destination, but a collision with a meteor awakens one passenger, regular-guy engineer Jim Preston (Pratt) early—ninety years early, to be precise, and fated to die long before the Aurora docks at Homestead.
For more than a year the poor fellow is entirely on his own, though thankfully the ship’s automated service divisions—the cafeteria, for example—have also (a mite unaccountably) sprung to life. Jim also has the companionship, so to speak, of an android bartender called Arthur (Michael Sheen), who proves a much nicer version of Joe Turkel’s Lloyd from the Overlook Hotel. Nevertheless loneliness eats away at him, and soon he’s an unkempt, bearded, semi-alcoholic mess who’s contemplating suicide by airlock.
One still-sleeping passenger, however, has caught his eye—Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a beautiful writer. Using his engineering skills along with the knowledge he’s gleaned from the ship’s operating manuals, he overcomes his ethical misgivings and awakens her, thereby dooming her to the same fate as he faces. But he leads her to believe that she’s been brought out of hibernation accidentally too, and helps her come to terms with her new situation. It’s inevitable that romance should eventually arise between two such attractive people, and it does, complete with a spacewalk that’s meant to be magical but comes off as humdrum.
Two things shatter the couple’s idyllic relationship. Aurora finds out about how she awoke, and is none too pleased to learn of Jim’s selfish motives. Even worse, the Avalon begins to experience malfunctions so threatening that they bring one of the crew members (Laurence Fishburne) out of suspended animation to fix the problem. That leads to a prolonged final act, in which Jim and Aurora must work feverishly to keep the ship from total destruction. Most of the details of what’s happening are weighed down by technical explanations that defy comprehension and visual effects that are frankly mediocre, but their efforts will include a self-sacrificial action. “Passengers” is, however, much too modern a crowd-pleaser to allow for a downbeat ending, so resorts to one of those implausible twists that don’t even allow to dead to rest in peace.
In fairness, it must be admitted that both Lawrence and Pratt do their darnedest to make Jim and Aurora people you want to root for, but both characters are so sketchily written that empathy with them is elusive, and the level of chemistry between the stars is low-voltage at best. Of the other two cast members with any real screen time, Fishburne brings his usual gruff manner to a nothing role, but Sheen manages to be ingratiatingly wry as Arthur, who whooshes back and forth behind the bar with an appropriate sound effect. And while the visuals in the last act aren’t terribly impressive, there are a few earlier sequences—like one in which the artificial gravity on the ship goes haywire just as Aurora is enjoying a swim—that show some technical panache.
Overall, however, “Passengers” proves a curiously tepid excursion into space, with little humanity and none of the sense of wonder it obviously aspires to.