Review by C.J. Bunce

She wanted the story of a lifetime.  He just wanted to fix things.

The pop sci-fi movie appeals to moviegoers who don’t typically dabble in science fiction, and it is frequently cast with the day’s biggest Hollywood stars.  A subgenre that includes Gravity and Interstellar, the pop sci-fi movie tends not to further science fiction as a whole for the avid science fiction fan.   It usually means thin story, heavy special effects, and sappy melodrama.  Some of that might apply to this year’s theatrical release, Passengers, now streaming in digital format, Blu-ray and DVD.

But wait–unlike the typical pop sci-fi flick, this one works just fine, thanks to a straightforward story and the believability and authenticity of a small main cast: Chris Pratt as Jim Preston, an engineer whose stasis pod malfunctions causing him to awaken early on a 90-year deep space transport ship; Jennifer Lawrence as Aurora Lane, a passenger who is a journalist giving up her life for a big story; Michael Sheen as Arthur, a robot bartender who offers sage advice along the way; and Laurence Fishburne as Gus Mancuso, a deck chief on the ship.

Passengers was unfairly panned by critics and moviegoers, but the reasons make little sense.  It all boils down to two elements for the typical non-genre filmgoer.  First, Passengers did not simply give away its plot, or even the true nature of its genre, via movie trailer spoilers, surprising moviegoers looking for a pleasant date movie, and second, for being unconventional.  Yet probably more than any other movie this year it prompts plenty of water cooler conversation:  What would you do if you were put in Jim’s or Aurora’s position?  Jim is a hero (so is Aurora), but he is a pretty flawed hero.  Isn’t that the stuff of a good drama?  Passengers in many ways is the modern-day Stagecoach or Lifeboat–a closed room mystery, but without the whodunnit.  And Lawrence and Pratt have chemistry.

What would you do?

Plenty of sci-fi tech concepts pull Passengers beyond the realm of the standard popular drama.  The classic trope of the malfunctioning machine turns an incredible cruise ship into the setting of an Irwin Allen disaster movie.  How different in its essential elements is Passengers from James Cameron’s Titanic?  Writer Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange, The Mummy) and director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) take us through a Murphy’s Law checklist of bad customer service on a road trip, from being confined and trapped a la M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, to being stranded, really stranded, a la Chris Kentis’s Open Water.

And Passengers is plain fun.  We see at a passing glance the resetting of tethers on an EVA spacewalk–the thing we’ve not seen in real life yet, which limits the distance of astronauts walking in space.  This happens in a split second, yet it’s a brilliant idea that contributes to the film’s great future vision and worldbuilding.  You’ll find several other gold nuggets on your voyage with these characters.  Guy Hendrix Dyas’s (Galaxy Quest, Planet of the Apes, The Matrix Reloaded) production design is beautiful and sets a perfect, if sometimes (intentionally) gut-punching mood, and the film’s complicated set designs coupled with cold, large interiors may even evoke the isolation within Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Quiet Earth, or 28 Days Later.  

Is Passengers even pop sci-fi or is it simply a sci-fi thriller?  Is it a classic disaster movie in sci-fi dress or is it really sci-fi horror?  Something of each?  Watch it with someone you want to stay up and chat with afterward.  Passengers is streaming now on Starz, Vudu, Amazon Video, and Google play, and available now here from Amazon on Blu-ray and Digital HD, as well as a DVD edition.

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