PASSENGERS Blu-ray Review
While it looks and sounds great, the Sci-Fi/disaster flick PASSENGERS is lost in space.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
By Matt Cummings
If the Science-Fiction themes present in this year’s amazing ARRIVAL were either too much to handle or too boring for you, count on the much sexier PASSENGERS to placate. However, if you’ve come expecting an effective character drama with high human stakes set to a slick Science-Fiction groove (essentially ARRIVAL), you’re in for a disaster-in-space-sized surprise.
The Earth starship Avalon is on course for Homestead II, a colony planet that offers a cheap alternative to the high prices and congestion of a futuristic Earth. Aboard are 5,000 colonists and 255 shipmates in suspended animation via cryogenic capsules, which are outfitted for the 120-year journey to their new home. But when an asteroid storm damages the ship, critical systems begin to falter along with those cryotubes, releasing a single chamber: engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). When he realizes what’s happened – and that has 90 years of the journey left – Jim decides to live the high life. He steals codes to fashion himself with a swanky room and eats like a king until he begins to go insane from the lack of human contact. Not even the android bartender (Michael Sheen) can offer anything more than digitized companionship, prompting Jim to make an incredible decision: he decides to awaken another passenger (Jennifer Lawrence). Unaware of the deception, Aurora assumes the same thing that happened to Jim has happened to her, and the two eventually grow close, donning spacesuits for romantic spacewalks and humping like bunnies. Neither is aware that Avalon is slowly falling apart. As the truth about Jim’s betrayal comes to light, Aurora must put aside her differences to help Jim save the mission, even if it means making the ultimate sacrifice to do so.
PASSENGERS is a competently-acted and beautifully shot film, with Lawrence and Pratt enjoying terrific chemistry. But, it’s also predictable, pedestrian, and skips the best part of the plot for a standard Sci-Fi disaster narrative. Once the big mystery is revealed and resolved, there’s little for Director Morten Tyldum and Writer Jon Spaihts to do, except concoct an unworthy disaster scenario where the duo essentially have to forget about Jim’s decision. You would expect some sort of conversation to wrap things up, even a demand that the two stay away from each other as the mission concludes, and yet nothing that logical happens. They fall back in love, forget about Jim’s decision, and completely alter the mall into a forest. Yeah, a forest. It’s a horrible way to ignore the basic premise of your story, and it doesn’t make for great theater. But Pratt and Lawrence are likable and a lot more comical than I gave them credit for, effortlessly gliding off each other’s movements. PASSENGERS is more worried about the world surrounding these two, expanding on the gorgeous sets and stellar CGI, including a bejeweled bar that looks a lot like the best rooms at Disney’s California Hotel. Production design – including breathtaking shots of The Milky Way – are top notch, thanks to cinematography by Rodrigo Pietro, who basks the sets in sumptuous colors. Again, none of that matters in the end, because the film doesn’t have the balls – or desire it seems – to address the galactic elephant in the room: Jim’s deception.
For someone who hit every mark with the terrific character drama THE IMITATION GAME, Director Tyldum strays from his strong suit once PASSENGERS is done shoving Jim’s story to the side. Tyldum’s usually all about exposing conflicted characters like these, and how their motivations change when new information is input into the stream. It’s not like they don’t address the deception at all, but we’re limited to some mean looks and angry moments of release. Rather than giving Jim a heroic ending, we’re gifted a big, dumb survival flick where throwing overheated levers is supposed to solve all of life’s problems. Granted, saving your ship from disaster is kind of important here, but it all comes off rather empty because there’s never any real danger placed on our actors. PASSENGERS devolves into Sci-Fi disaster/rescue, merging ideas from other recent (and better) movies like THE MARTIAN and GRAVITY without realizing the best story was sitting right in front of them.
Even with that gold in front of him, Tyldum refuses to center the story Jim as the antagonist, gifting that to the Avalon. As a result, there is nothing for us to root against, which gives the film an interesting vibe. But it’s the wrong kind of conversation to have: you side with Jim or blame him for taking extreme measures to protect his sanity, and neither is a really favorable angle to take. Even the last-minute addition of a revived deck officer (an sorely underused Lawrence Fishburne) can’t set this ship back on course. Therefore, you’re forced back to the Avalon and its friendly but ignorant AI (who’s really the best part of this film), but even he doesn’t have the complexity of the murderous Hal from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. By the time you get to Act 2, you can’t really tell what this film is anymore. Moreover, it refuses to address the most interesting questions about technology and its effects on human nature, choosing instead to show off Pratt’s bare butt and his overly affectionate girlfriend, until she’s not and then she is at film’s end. Even a non-speaking cameo with Andy Garcia is better than most of what we get here, as he and the crew emerge near film’s end to find a radically different ship than they left.
PASSENGERS cost $110m to produce before marketing and took in only $99m domestically. And although its $195m worldwide haul brought it back into profitability, the result doesn’t match its quality. Still, the trio of actors – including the always-excellent Sheen – play off each other quite well, and you tend to forget all of the plot problems with Act 3, as Sheen’s AI works his charm on you. All one needs is a fizzy drink at your side to compliment what could have been a really great psychological thriller with disaster elements. Instead, PASSENGERS is a reflection of Sheen’s character, a happily-ignorant film with comedic moments which is designed to entertain but nothing more.
As with so many films these days, PASSENGERS was digitally shot with the Arri Alexa 65; and although some haven’t transferred very well into the hi-def space, the image here is fabulous. Central to its success is the clean transfer which allows both digital and practical surfaces to come alive. Colors tend to favor the cooler side, until you get into the bar where the image births gorgeous reds of various shades, which the Alexa seems to love. But there’s other colors on parade here, including blues and grays in the hallways. Blacks and shadows fare very well, whether it’s the blackness of space or the shadowy areas of Jim’s room or in the dimly-lit bridge. Clothing details reveal stitches in Aurora’s blouses and in Jim’s wrinkled clothing. Human features are also superior: individual strands of hair and pores are revealed even in darker environments, including Jim’s ratty beard as he plunges into madness. Finally, there’s no compression issues including aliasing or banding. Although I’m sure the 4K version is superior in every way, this one is about as good as you’re going to get in the Blu-ray realm, standing as an essential reference product for your 1080p display.
Sony’s release of PASSENGERS features a strong DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack that also misses in a couple of key moments. One place where it excels is in Composer Thomas Newman’s Oscar-nominated score, echoing through the front and rears at just the right moments. Dialogue dominates the center channel, although it’s just an amped-up track instead of an isolated one. You can still hear music and the sound effects, but at least the separation isn’t noticeable unless you’re right up on the speaker. The front speakers do a fair job of moving the Avalon across space, doing a much better job when the surrounds are put in play. There, the track excels as Avalon moves from rear to front diagonally. For all the futurism here, the track itself doesn’t feature a lot of beeping or whirling panels or much atmospherics, as it mostly takes place in quieter environs. But the track doesn’t find a way to bring the emptiness of the ship to the rears, so it’s a mostly up-front experience. The LFE also has a bit of struggle enlivening the ship’s lumbering power, bottoming out in a couple of scenes instead of being the heartbeat behind Jim’s struggles. I always like to hear the ‘sound’ of a ship as the crew moves through her. There’s not a lot of that here, and the track suffers for it. Much like the film, the audio track could have been much more but instead settles for solid instead of impressive.
PASSENGERS contains a mostly appealing set of supplements. Having said that, the lack of a director’s commentary really hurts this release, which is reflective on my score. But at least everything here is displayed in HD:
- Deleted Scenes (9:49): Be sure to watch the movie before checking these out, as there are some spoiler moments within: No New Drinks, Memory Maker, Tacos and Cocktails, Kiss in the Photo Booth, Aurora Finds Jim’s Photos, Drunk Dial, Gus Reveals His Past, and Gus Looks for a Solution.
- Casting the Passengers (10:39): An expanded breakdown of the characters in the film and the actors who played them.
- Space on Screen: The Visual Effects of Passengers (7:26): The film’s gorgeous effects are on display here.
- On the Set with Chris Pratt (4:19): This is one of those “He’s so great!” featurettes, with the cast and crew pining on about the actor.
- Creating the Avalon (9:35): I really liked this featurette, which takes a closer look at the film’s spacecraft, starting with concept drawings and moving to construction.
- Outtakes from the Set (4:23): This is a glorified gag reel.
- Book Passage (4:40): Another of my favorites, these are a series of advertisements for interstellar travel. I love it when marketing companies get this creative when hired for a movie. Clips include Choose Your Star, Dare to Dream, Elite Suites, and A Flight to Remember.
- Previews (1080p): Enjoy these other Sony titles.
Our evaluation copy arrived as a Blu-ray with an UltraViolet digital copy code. There is no DVD included with this purchase, nor was one offered in any of the other versions. The slipcase is colorful but offers no embossed lettering or interior artwork. At the time of this posting, Best Buy was offering a 4K/3D steelbook, again with no DVD. While it’s assumed that a DVD wouldn’t do the visuals in this film justice, the lack of one here is disappointing.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Although PASSENGERS starts out strong, it fades once the most interesting question behind Tyldum’s film has been answered. It settles instead on simple Sci-Fi rather than telling a compelling Science Fiction tale about ethical conundrums and the deeper science behind a long mission. PASSENGERS probably wasn’t envisioned as a Oscar contender, but the end result is rather empty, entirely predictable, and certainly the least appealing Sci-Fi film of this season. The Blu-ray is serviceable, even very good in parts; but without a director’s commentary I’m not sure it’s worth anything more than a rental. The final result feels palatable but utterly forgettable.
PASSENGERS is rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity and action/peril and has a runtime of 116 minutes.