It's a shame that Passengers, one of the most cleverly marketed and hotly anticipated sci-fi movies of the year, ended up splattered across the ever-growing list of Truly Horrible Things From 2016.
How did it land in the dump?
Some critics are calling Passengers the sexist, dull, and creepy blockbuster that nobody wanted, while others are giving it credit for its world design and knocking it for stilted performances from #ChrisPratt and #JenniferLawrence. Apparently, the gleeful talk show interviews and Pratt's hilarious Instagram campaign weren't enough to keep people interested. Is Passengers truly a sexist blight on December? In a word, no. The fatal flaw of the movie isn't the fact that it's riddled with stalking vibes and bad dialogue. To uncover the real weakness of Passengers, we'll have to do surgery.
Warning: Spoilers for 'Passengers' Ahead
At Surface Level
If Passengers was a human being, skin is where our scalpel will hit first. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt serve as the skin of the movie, playing writer Aurora Lane and engineer Jim Preston. A surprising amount of criticisms have been focused on these stellar players. Aurora and Jim, the only two human beings awake aboard the space ship Avalon (accidentally, of course, because it still has 90 years to reach its destination), are sometimes compelling and sometimes predictable. It's impossible to blame it on Lawrence or Pratt. The script throws them weak lines of dialogue, and even the romance falls apart with chemistry that's diluted by the unstable story.
Cross #acting off the hit list. It's not the problem here.
Under the Skin
The next layer of Passengers is the woven mass of muscle fibers, tissues, and ligaments. It's tough down here—careful to keep our scalpel from breaking—but this is the layer that ties the plot together. It's also the layer everyone that's been bashed with the heaviest criticism. The story of Passengers is bound by a moral dilemma, and it isn't the prettiest sight to behold.
Here's the problem: Jim and Aurora are not the two unlucky people to wake up 90 years too early. First, it was just Jim. Lonely and afraid, he spends his days trying to unlock the secrets of the Avalon and learn how to slip back into hibernation. When it becomes clear he'll be awake for the rest of his life, he finds a promising passenger on board and deactivates her hibernation pod. Jim sentences Aurora to a slow death with him.
Because Passengers sells itself as a #romance, Aurora falls for Jim without knowing the truth, and the ethical mud weighs down every footprint Jim leaves behind. However, Passengers is aware of its imperfect—and admittedly very troubling—characters, and it plays up the inner turmoil of Jim's decision. It even takes a crack at some existential questions from the colorful perspective of an android bartender (played by Michael Sheen). The first half of Passengers is en emotionally compelling ride, but when the second half hits, the movie runs out of strength.
The Absolute Blood and Guts of Passengers
The knife can go no further when it reaches the heart. Here, blood flows in and blood flows out, two different colors blending together to restore life. In the case of Passengers, one of these colors is ugly. Part one of the story sets up a few legitimately interesting moral questions and explores them while giving us a slightly flat (but still satisfying) romance between Aurora and Jim. Then the first plot twist blunders onto the scene. A crew member wakes up.
With three people on the ship and a mysterious list of mechanical failures growing longer every hour, Passengers changes from an existentially engaging love story to a sci-fi adventure.
And it sucks. It really sucks.
Passengers is still fun to watch during the adventure scenes—that zero gravity swimming pool sequence, though—but the latter half is where all the bad dialogue and uncomfortable character arcs come into play. After Aurora learns the truth about Jim's decision, her reaction feels . . . incomplete. Yes, she's angry and confused, but when the sci-fi adventure gets heated, she drops her perfectly reasonable hesitations and saves him. In a second plot twist, she gives up her chance to go back into hibernation so she can stay with Jim. It's a whiplash change of tone. Passengers sets up those heavy questions, pokes at them, and then never follows through.
What is The Fatal Flaw?
Take out the scalpel, blood and stringy tissue and all, because we're done with surgery. Now you've seen all layers of Passengers. The good layer is a film that builds with the same potential as hits like Arrival, and its first hour is definitely worth watching. The bad side is a movie made up of themes that are forgotten in the name of a glowing ending, a happy (yet disturbing) romance, and a snazzy #sciencefiction action sequence. Chris Pratt with stalker vibes and Jennifer Lawrence with Stockholm Syndrome aren't the specks of dirt that kill Passengers.
The fatal flaw is a script that can't decide what it wants to be.