Passengers (2016)

I've heard a lot of criticisms of "Passengers" including some reputed to be from Jennifer Lawrence herself but it was hard to establish what those issues were. Some were moral as in why one of the lead one characters did something to the other lead but, right or wrong, the film does address that so I think it can be assumed intentional, something for viewers to discuss as they wish. Others were logical and these are the ones my review will focus on.

Passengers (2016) The film opens to a view of space. A spaceship speeds towards us, passes us by with a low doppler-like sound then speeds away again. Though the effects are much better, it feels almost like a flashback to original series "Star Trek" days but without the sixties style theme music.

The film's title appears briefly and, as we are treated to a long-shot view of the ship from the side, we are introduced to the story specifics, a series of information bytes on the screen. We're told that this is the Starship Avalon and that its destination is the colony world of Homestead II. Following a front, through the superstructure shot, we get our first view of the ship's interior, the ship's flight deck. The ship appears lifeless and empty, computers seeming to run the entire vessel, something that is confirmed moments later as we're informed it is running on autopilot. In The Command Ring, an upward curving corridor view reminiscent of "2001: A Space Odyssey", we're informed that this is the crew hibernation quarters. As the view switches to a series of what I instantly realised were hibernation pods, we're told that there are 258 crew and, as the view switches to a larger chamber, that there are 5000 passengers... it all looks quite "swish".

Outside the ship, we can see there is some kind of energy-based meteor shield generated from a fire-like ball at the end of a front-facing long mast. Every so often the shield lights like fireworks as meteors hit it. On the flight deck, we see a screen showing the ship approaching a meteor field and the computers deciding the safest way through or around it. From behind the ship, we see a field of meteors just ahead while, on the flight deck, we see a graphical representation of meteors impacting, each one taking perhaps half-a-second to travel across the screen to the shield, perhaps a quarter the length of the ship. I'll come back to this later.

A panel lights with a sign saying power is being diverted to the main shield and the words "Impact Protocol Initiated" and, if that isn't enough, a large arrow spears through the ship graphic to show us that power is actually being diverted. The bombardment becomes more intense and from within the asteroid field, we get a long-distance view of a rapidly approaching fireball, the ship behind its overworked shield. Something deadly lurks within the field, an asteroid the size of a tennis court... ten tennis courts... a hundred... it's hard to tell as there's no real scale. Helpfully, back on the flight deck, we see a relative view and... my god, the ship is about to plough through the asteroids. That can't be good but don't worry, the big one (looking to be about the same size as the ship) hits but is destroyed... phew! Uh oh...

The impact causes problems... lights go out all over the ship then come back on, a huge drain on the power, the screens on the flight deck light up with red information signs. It's not looking good but one by one the warning signs go green then disappear as the ship's systems repair themselves... clearly, this is a very clever ship. But hold on, what's happening to hibernation pod 1498? In the passenger compartment, some lights flicker, a pod lights up yellow and the camera moves slowly in on it... pod 1498 I assume. A close-up of the pod, full of slowly clearing gas, tells us that this is Passenger J. Preston (Chris Pratt), an R/2 Mechanical Engineer from Denver County, Colorado and that "H.Pod Evac Seq" is complete. Several needles and a shock later, some blue panels on the outside of the pod tell us that Preston's heart has started, he takes a deep breath, his eyes open quickly followed by the pod.

Although a halfwit could tell there's something wrong, the computer starts to talk him through the pre-Homestead II routine and it becomes clear the machine is only capable of doing what it was supposed to do somewhere further along the line. Preston is told that The Avalon is on final approach to Homestead II and that for the next 4 months he will enjoy space travel at its most luxurious... food, fun, friends. After a night in his cabin, Preston quickly discovers the ship is nowhere near Homestead II, that he was woken prematurely and that he is the only human awake on the ship.

This is where the film proper begins and where I stop telling you what's happening... after all you might want to watch it yourself even after my review.

And so, to the film itself.

First of all, I was quite amazed that they managed to get all of this in in the space of six minutes and thirty-six seconds especially since the first minute and several seconds are just titles. I am really quite impressed.

The graphics are stunning... not only of the starship on which the entire film takes place but of the starfield generally. Of course, being a Hollywood film for mass consumption, the ship passes with by with a rumbling sound but that's forgivable. As any science fiction fan will tell you, there's no sound in space and, although I have seen space battles done with no sound, I just accept it as something Hollywood does. The graphics of the meteors/asteroid field look good even though there is no real sense of scale until we move inside the ship for a relative view from what I suppose is meant to be an external camera view. Of course, an asteroid field of that density is understood to be something that simply can't occur. Asteroid fields are very sparse, largely dust, with rocks (if there are any), thousands of kilometres apart. To give an example, if you passed through the asteroid belt at a reasonably sedate speed, say about 20 km/s, you'd be extremely unlikely to see one... asteroids are rare. Despite that, the starship Avalon encounters a field of asteroids, a big one, not only with the monster asteroid that becomes the root cause of all of the problems on the starship but thousands... perhaps hundreds of thousands of others. It's ridiculous but at the same time yet another of those staples of science fiction but, less forgivable, is the ignorance of the writers/director.

At one point in the film, I won't say when though it's hardly giving anything away, it's revealed that the ship is travelling at 0.5c, that is to say, half the speed of light, approximately 150,000 kilometres per second. This raises all kinds of issues not least of which the flyby of Arcturus which is 36 light years away and, even allowing for instant acceleration, means the ship would take some 72 years to reach. But returning to the asteroids mentioned above, remember the graphical representation of the meteors impacting the shield? At 150,000 km/s the meteors would be on the screen, through the ship and 50,000 kilometres behind it in the time it is displayed... to give an idea of scale we are told the ship is a kilometre long. Now admittedly that is only a Hollywood-ism but here's the thing, an asteroid as big as a tennis court travelling at 150kms/s would smash the ship into matchwood, smaller than matchwood, atomic particles ... even with the shield protecting the ship, the force has to go somewhere. If the shield were actually capable of absorbing the force, it would simply be passed back along the mast and drive it, probably along with any anchoring points, straight back through the ship with the force of several thousand atomic bombs. This is just straight forward physics. If you were actually able to anchor the thing adequately, you would have to build a ship so strong and massive no one would ever be able to launch the thing. Still, in my mind, it's forgivable... SciFi film and TV pull stupid stuff like that all the time. However, a little more thought on the part of the writers and they could have had the ship hit a cloud of dust instead, far more believable and I'm sure they could still have made it look spectacular on the cinema screen. I have, of course, seen the explanation that maybe the meteors were travelling at a similar speed to the ship (so half-light-speed) but no one has bothered to support the argument with an explanation of how dumb rocks had gotten there is the first place, all travelling the same direction as each other and the ship.

Then there's the ship itself, the design of which instantly raises questions. When I first saw it, I thought it was quite beautiful even if the logical part of my brain was saying, "Whoa! That's a daft design." I remember some of the features on the "Avatar" Blu-ray... the guys that designed the double-rotored helicopters did a good job. Just before they committed to film they ran their ideas past some pilots and real aircraft designers, who apparently loved them and said, "All that's left to do is build 'em and fly 'em,"... quite some praise. Apparently not with The Avalon. I mean, some of the graphics sequences are just stunning but the ship is utterly and completely impractical.

Externally, the ship is clearly providing gravity by rotation (centripetal force) yet there is a sequence where the gravity drive stops and so does the gravity... why? The ship is still rotating so intertia will still force things to the outside i.e. artificial gravity, so why does a failure of the drive cause gravity to stop? There are other quibbles I have with respect to rotation and gravity but a review is only so long and it didn't actually bother me that much.

Internally, the ship has large, spacious and well-lit halls containing hibernation pods, massive amounts of room all around them. The halls have ceilings perhaps five metres high and a general ship structure that is more a work of art than a practical design concept. The crew pods might have more room but I strongly suspect passenger pods would be stacked in storerooms and among the crew's first jobs, once the ship was secured, would be to wake them in batches. Of course, I get that the ship journey is supposed to be luxurious for the last 4 months but when the journey takes 120 years? The ship is a triumph of beauty and aesthetics over function but we've seen that before, it's a bit of a staple of TV and film science fiction so...

The following does contain spoilers so, if you don't want to know some of it, skip to the scores.

Down to the nitty gritty, the stuff that's left after all my criticisms. In essence, "Passengers" is not really science fiction, any more than "Titanic" is really about the eponymous ship, it's a love story. The story is a basic boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again variant set against a science fiction background. The acting is good and the relationship aspects are well handled, there were certainly some amusing bits such as messaging at half-lightspeed. I loved the three main characters, especially Arthur (Michael Sheen), I liked the way they handled Preston's mental decay and the anger of Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) when she finally found out about his waking her. Of course, she was completely justified in being angry but it's arguable, if there is a weakness in the basic plot, that she forgives him so easily... but there's only a couple of hours in a film. I also understand why some have criticised the film for his taking advantage of her but, not only is it addressed in the film by the ship's crewman Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne), I think such critics ignore that Preston was not of sound mind or body, that he had been on his own on a ship for a year. I really don't think any of us can imagine what we would do in such a situation. None of us have ever truly been alone no matter how much we feel like we have been. Clearly, what he did was wrong but equally clearly, I think such evaluations have to be considered against his mental state, with some understanding of how screwed up his mind actually was. Another thought occurs to me and that is to wonder what the film would have been if they had reversed the two roles so that Aurora, an engineer, was woken first, went off the deep end and subsequently woke Preston, a writer, effectively denying him his future. Firstly I think that might make a more interesting film and secondly, I have to wonder if the negative reaction would have been as bad.

And another small criticism... towards the end we see The Avalon approaching Homestead II, lovely shot but can someone tell me why the ship is approaching front first? It was going at half the speed of light, it has to slow down, right? Surely it would be reversing pretty much all the way in to the planet? I've been reading around and there are other criticisms, ones I hadn't thought of such as the amount of food two people would have eaten in the best part of eighty years and how that might affect the others when they awoke. Personally, I would have thought that a simple month's delay in waking the 5000 passengers would solve it but there you go.

However, perhaps my greatest criticism in terms of the story is that having finally decided to stick it out together on the ship for the remainder of its journey, why, eighty plus year later, when the crew wakes, are there no children? They seemed to have done everything else, planted trees, raised animals and so on... why not kids?

So, here are my scores:

  • Acting: Despite the dubious quality of the script, all four primary actors do their job well, acting with passion and apparently putting their hearts and souls into the roles [8].
  • Action: The film starts off high action but then calms down to tell the actual story. It ramps up later to deal with the problems they are having but ultimately finishes at a sedate pace [7]
  • Direction: Unfortunately, with the lack of attention to science, I have to mark this category down [5].
  • Effects: No matter what I thought of the science, the effects in the film are impressive and beautiful. The no-gravity effects were quite good as well [8].
  • Extras: A few deleted scenes, some of which revealed some interesting information including the nature of the ship's drive and how many trips The Avalon has done, some interesting featurettes. OK but not as good as it could be [6].
  • Music: Throughout the film the music is good but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the closing track, the one films often use to advertise the film via its music [6].
  • Originality: The background story was quite interesting but, at its heart, the film is a romance [7].
  • Plot: It's Space 1999 all over again... good actors, good budget all ruined by inadequate research prior to writing. To be fair, the end result wasn't actually all that bad but, for someone like me, the basic science flaws destroyed much of my enjoyment and I'm forced to wonder if they even had a science advisor. I also think they could have done more to extend the story [5].
  • Presentation: The Blu-ray packaging was fairly basic, not quite the simple plastic case but pretty much with a cardboard overlay [5].
  • Romance: The film is a romance but the romance aspects are quite well handled [7].
  • Sound: The sound effects are good but the film gets a down check for having sound in a vacuum [7].
  • Suspense: I suppose a more realistic ending would have been with one or other of the two main stars dying but hey, I like a fairy tale ending so yeah [6].
  • Personal: Despite all of my criticisms above, I have to say I still liked the thing... something about the chemistry between the actors I suppose [7].

  • Overall: Overall mark 7.
Chris Prat, Jennifer Lawrence, Laurence Fishburne and, my favourite, Martin Sheen deliver excellent performances and the film certainly doesn't lack for action. The music was good throughout and only spoiled when it accompanied the closing credits, a jarring track I assume was intended to boost the film through the music charts.

In the end, I felt most of the criticisms levelled at the film were explained within it and despite all the criticisms I could level at the film's science, I still enjoyed it perhaps because of the chemistry between the actors.

So, to sum up, the science was poorly thought through but most of it can be explained away in the usual manner we do for science fiction film and TV. The acting was good and the story, by and large, well told even if it didn't make a whole lot of sense. There was a moral issue which the film pretty much deals with and outside of that, it was a graphically well-presented science fiction tale which I am happy to have on my shelf and would absolutely be happy to watch again.

Thanks for reading.

James C. Rocks, Author ("The Abyssal Void" Series)

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Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness.

Tyrion Lannister (A Game of Thrones)

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