Do you remember how they said the Titanic was unsinkable? That its water tight compartments would never give way, even if the ship hit an iceberg? The same kind of hubris is cleverly worked into the plot of Morten Tyldum’s new sci-fi horror show, Passengers. We’re 30 years into the 120 year journey of the Starship Avalon, where over 5,000 passengers are in suspended animation, sleeping in hibernation pods, headed for colonisation on the distant planet, Homestead II. And just like the Titanic, it’s posited that the sleek Avalon is impenetrable, that nothing can go wrong with the pods, with none of its passengers waking up early and trapped on the giant ship, doomed to grow old before arriving at the scheduled destination light years away.
But indeed that’s exactly what happens to Jim (Chris Pratt), when his pod malfunctions during some kind of massive intergalactic electrical storm that the Avalon is passing through. The extremely clever Twilight-Zone like premise is downright spooky, and we end up riveted as we watch Jim soon discover the terrible predicament he’s in.
It begins with an automated greetings message Jim watches as his pod opens and he slowly regains the use of his muscles. The message presumes that everyone on the ship has woken up and passengers and crew are now only four months away from the target planet. But as Jim roams the cavernous ship, he realises no one is awake and he’s all alone.
Jim attempts to divert himself by working out in the gym and dancing with a pair of holographic projections but after a year he’s thinking of killing himself as he’s now dying of loneliness. At this point, Jim becomes obsessed with Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), an aspiring writer hibernating in one of the pods, and after some tortured deliberation, decides to wake her up.
Oddly enough, a coterie of film critics on the internet view Jim’s actions as sexist; others go further by arguing that he “murdered” her. It’s all nonsense since Jim’s decision adds to the very cool Twilight Zone-like atmosphere of the story. In addition, while his actions can be construed as wholly selfish, anyone in his position would probably have done the same (after all, who wants to live the rest of their life on a spaceship with no one to talk to?).
At this point I’m wondering where the story is going and suddenly the plot moves in a new, welcome direction. A third character, Gus–a chief deck officer–wakes up from another pod malfunction. He only has a short time to live as his internal organs were compromised when he woke up early. Gus lives long enough to explain to Jim that the ship’s systems are failing and gives them his ID code for access to critical parts of the ship.
With a nod to the film “Gravity,” Jim is thrust out into space after repairing a damaged fusion reactor and Aurora saves him by donning a spacesuit and going outside the ship and rescuing him after he loses consciousness. Once it becomes apparent that Jim was willing to sacrifice his own life to save the rest of the crew and passengers, Aurora realises he’s really a good guy after all and forgives him for waking her up.
It’s a fanciful idea that ignores the reality of the story’s powerful premise–that the two passengers are still trapped and doomed for all eternity in a place they can never escape from.
The ending is a failure because it jettisons the horror component of the story for a far-fetched “love conquers all” scenario. A much better ending would have reduced the time of the ship’s journey from 120 years to say 70 years. The denouement would need no additional dialogue with a montage inserted instead, chronicling how the couple eventually settled into a dull routine after the initial rekindling of their romance. By the time the passengers and crew awake, they find Jim and Aurora still alive but withered and old in separate rooms, suggesting that the thrill of life has left them after being trapped on the spaceship for so long.