“Passengers” is the tale of a lonely guy in space, the drama of an ethical conundrum, a love story featuring two of the hottest actors on the planet, and a turbulent sci-fi action-adventure — and for all of that, it manages to be not a very good movie. The two stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, are both intensely gifted and easy on the eyes, and the film takes off from a not-bad idea, but the setup is way better than the follow-through. The director, the Norwegian-born Morten Tyldum, made the accomplished WWII brainiac spy thriller “The Imitation Game” (2014), but he turns out to be the wrong filmmaker for an amorous space opera. You can see why when he stages a scene that’s supposed to take us out of this world, but doesn’t.
We’re on the Avalon, a corporate starship that’s shaped like a spidery double helix. The spacecraft, which is headed for a prefab interplanetary colony called Homestead II (in the future, it seems, off-world lands will become franchises for those tired of life on earth), is carrying 255 crew members and 5,000 volunteer passengers, all of whom are in a state of suspended animation and set to stay that way for 120 years. That’s how long the voyage will take. But two of the passengers get woken up early: Jim Preston (Pratt), a mechanical engineer who’s jostled to consciousness in his hibernation pod after the ship hits a meteor, and Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a journalist whom Jim deliberately rouses from her slumber so that he’ll have someone to keep him company.
The two have all the food, alcohol, and entertainment they could want; there’s a basketball court, a video dance floor, and an elegant if empty bar presided over by a red-jacketed android named Arthur, played by Michael Sheen like the chipper robot cousin of Lloyd the bartender in “The Shining.” But unless either Jim or Aurora manages to live another 90 years or so, this voyage is going to eat up the remainder of their existence, and they’ve got no one but each other to keep each other company. Since they happen to look like Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt (stranded in space, you could do worse), it starts to seem like things will work out.
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They get to know each other and go on a “date,” at which point Jim tells Aurora that he’d like to take her to a place that’s “the best show in town.” He’s talking about a deep-space walk. The two don heavy-duty suits and, hanging by a tether, venture outside the ship, into the starry vastness, at which point you may flash back to other visions of flying human rapture — Christopher Reeve whisking Margot Kidder through the night sky in “Superman,” or George Clooney and Sandra Bullock (though they were just pesky colleagues) bobbing around in the awesome void of “Gravity.” In different ways, both those movies made your heart skip a beat. But in “Passengers,” the big romantic spacewalk is so perfunctory and visually rote that it’s about as stunning as a glimpse out the window of an airplane cruising over Cleveland. The scene is a harbinger of what’s to come, since the two actors spend the rest of the movie going through the motions of what turns out to be a flavorless and rather predictable fable.
Too bad! Because for its opening 45 minutes or so, “Passengers” is a reasonably cunning slice of commercial sci-fi, even as it overtly recycles the strategies of films like “The Martian” and “Moon.” When Jim first wakes up, he thinks the voyage of the Avalon is complete (the passengers are scheduled to come out of hibernation four months before the end of the journey). It doesn’t take long for him to realize, though, that something is amiss. He’s surrounded by chirpy holograms and talking food dispensers — but there’s no other live human.
The Avalon is like an abandoned cruise ship, and the movie serves up some witty tweaks of top-down corporate culture, like the way that Jim can’t order a first-rate cup of coffee (because he’s not a Gold Star passenger), or the fact that he can’t get through to anyone back on earth, because everything on the ship is programmed to stonewall you. (No information leaks out, even if your life depends on it.) The situation Jim finds himself in is a gnawing nightmare; it’s as if he’d been sentenced to die alone, in 50 years, of boredom. Pratt, beneath the jock sexiness, is a fine actor who lets his eyes dance with playful intent, and with a dash of panic. Jim tries to make a go of things, but after too many days of eating, drinking, and one-man hologram dance-offs, he enters his Jim Morrison-on-the-skids phase. The question is: Will he rouse a fellow passenger, 90 years before she’s scheduled to wake up, in order to save himself?
He knows that doing so is indefensible (it’s like playing God), but he also knows that if he doesn’t make the decision to screw someone else over, he’s going to go crazy. The way that “Passengers” forces Jim to weigh his choice, and puts the audience in his shoes, seems responsible enough. Yet that still doesn’t make it an infectious thing to build a movie around. Jim’s whole relationship with Aurora is based on a selfish and rather creepy act, as well as a lie (the implication that she woke up accidentally, the same way he did). He’s crafty about it, but we’re waiting for their romance to crash. Lawrence and Pratt match up nicely, because they’re such naturally responsive actors; they’re fast, with mutual radar. Lawrence, though a bit less vivid when she’s this blonde, gives Aurora a core of survivalist moxie. She will do what the circumstances demand. But can Jim keep his secret?
There’s only one place for “Passengers” to go, and once it gets there, Jon Spaihts’s script runs out of gas. That won’t necessarily hurt the movie commercially, since it offers the kind of big-star mashup that every holiday movie season needs. Tyldun handles the dialogue almost as if he were doing a stage play, but he turns out to be a blah director of spectacle; he doesn’t make it dramatic. (He does create one cool image, though, of a swimming pool freed from gravity.) There isn’t much to “Passengers” besides its one thin situation, and there are moments when the film could almost be “a very special episode of ‘Star Trek,'” because Pratt, with his golden-boy smirk, has a Kirkian side, and the voyage they’re on is grandiose yet amorphous (like the Enterprise’s). The ship itself has a variety of chambers and communal spaces, but it all seems overly familiar and sterile. What’s lackluster about “Passengers” isn’t just that the movie is short on surprise, but that it’s like a castaway love story set in the world’s largest, emptiest shopping mall in space.