Writing in the 1920s Aldous Huxley denounced the joyless “Good Time” that had made people into passive consumers of art and entertainment. Huxley regretted that the cinema had killed off amateur theatrics, while music making at home had been supplanted by the gramophone.
He believed this indulgence in instant entertainment led to a crippling sense of boredom when people were finally left to their own devices. Huxley predicted this ennui would usher in the death of our civilisation.
We can only laugh, thinking how much further we have gone down this fatal path in the age of the Internet. Nowadays people suffer the agonies of King Lear if momentarily separated from a mobile phone.
Fast forward to a future where humanity has begun to colonise planets in distant galaxies; where people can leave an expensive, pampered Earth, and seek a new life.
This is the motivation for regular guy, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) to board a spaceship bound for a world named Homestead II, where he can work with his hands, fixing things and solving problems. On Earth things never get fixed anymore, merely replaced.
The only hitch is that one must spend about 150 years in a sleep pod while the ship ploughs through the cosmos. This is the set-up for Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, a film that promises more than it delivers. When the vessel passes through a meteor shower and Jim is roused from his slumbers 90 years too soon, he experiences a boredom so crushing, so soul-destroying, that all the available luxuries do nothing to alleviate the pain.
Regardless of his love of fixing things and solving problems, Jim is a product of his age who soon runs through all the distractions and feels he is going crazy. He is a castaway on a moving island of luxury – an inter-galactic Robinson Crusoe. His only company is Arthur, an android bartender programmed to be full of cheer and late-night wisdom. Michael Sheen, with his characteristic smirk, could hardly be better cast.
There are 5,000 passengers on the ship and 250 crew members. It seems mildly implausible that no-one is left awake to keep an eye on things, but this is the necessary precondition for the story. As the Titanic was presumed to be indestructible, this space craft is believed to be fool-proof in every way. Because it’s impossible that anything could go wrong, everything has been left to the machines. Apparently no-one bothered to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Likewise, because it’s impossible for anyone to wake up early, there’s no way of getting back to sleep. Once again, common sense is sacrificed in the name of dramatic logic. This is a future that has shaken off the OHS mindset; a world in which big companies do whatever they like, and believe their own hype. What a relief it’s only science fiction!
Tyldum and scriptwriter Jon Spaiht give us a satirical portrait of a future in which corporate spin and smarm have reached new levels of cringeworthiness. The interior of the ship looks like a Vogue Living version of a space vessel crossed with a Westfield shopping plaza.
With 4,999 other passengers to study in their sleeping pods, and a potential 50-60 years of enforced leisure ahead of him, Jim has a lot of time to think about who he’d like to have as a friend. After a year or so, when he has almost reverted to a Neanderthal state, he decides he rather fancies a very blonde Jennifer Lawrence. This doesn’t suggest much imagination on Jim’s part, but one can’t be too critical.
Lawrence plays Aurora Lane, a writer, who has left a set of lively interviews which Jim can access on-screen. As he watches these videos he begins to suffer from a condition called Lust in Space. The moral dilemma arises: what does a fellow do when the girl of his dreams lies sleeping in front of him, while he is condemned to live and die alone?
If you’ve seen the shorts you already know that Aurora does wake up. And guess how?
As their romance progresses by degrees we wait for Aurora to discover Jim’s role in bringing her back to life and simultaneously condemning her to a long, lingering death. This produces a suite of first-class histrionics from Lawrence, and a protracted dopey look from Pratt.
Although it may be better to be reanimated by Bambi rather than the Marquis de Sade, it’s clear that handsome, nice guy, Jim is a dull proposition. He can’t be portrayed as a creep even if he’s done a selfish, creepy thing, but there’s no virtue in ruining a stranger’s life because you were miserable and bored.
The saving grace is that both Jim and Aurora are required to help rescue the ship when its systems start to fail. This predictable catastrophe confers a higher purpose on their liaison that overshadows the personal dilemmas, yet somehow the action and disaster scenes are not especially engaging. They feel like a desperate plot device designed to restore positivity to a flawed romance. The ship sails on, but the story’s moral compass remains irretrievably skewed.
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Written by Jon Spaihts
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburn
USA, rated M, 116 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14 January, 2017