They woke up too soon!

Passengers
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Written by John Spaihts
116 minutes, rated M
3.5 stars

If you are going to get lost in space, there might be worse places than the Starship Avalon, heading for the Homestead II colony on a faraway planet.
And I do mean far: the journey takes 120 years, during which the Avalon’s 5000 passengers are in deep hibernation, like Ripley in Alien.

Given that the ship runs on autopilot, we might wonder why they need a lovely swimming pool and a full-time bartender robot played by an always-sunny Michael Sheen. That’s because when the passengers wake up, a few months before arriving, they will want a palatial floating hotel to roam around in – like a futuristic version of the Titanic.

If there has ever been a more luxurious spaceship than this, I have not seen it.
Passengers reverses the decades-long convention that spaceships would be tightly packed, grungy sardine cans. This one is luxe, with several classes of quarters, in a huge helix-shaped craft, more like a corkscrew than a rocket.

The premise is simple and elegant. What would you do if you woke up 90 years too early, and the only ‘person’ to talk to was the bartender? That’s what happens to Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) after the ship is damaged en route. He’s a mechanical engineer but even he can’t fix his sleeping pod to return to hibernation. Nor can he get onto the bridge, because he doesn’t have the right security pass. After a year of solitary exploration of the place where he must die, he has an idea. Perhaps he could wake up someone to play with?

This may be why John Spaihts’ script has been in development hell since 2007, when it first appeared. How do you maintain sympathy with a man who would do that? When Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) joins him, she has no idea how her sleeping pod malfunctioned. Preston neglects to tell her and swears Arthur the cyborg barman to secrecy.

Passengers cost about $150 million and it shows. The production design here is spectacular and utopian – a delirious idea of a future that’s perfectable, a world without blemish. All such utopias have a Garden of Eden origin. Now we get Adam and Eve in space, except that one of them has a guilty secret. Two, if we count Michael Sheen’s perfectly funny, waxy-faced barkeep.

Lawrence is said to have been paid $20 million for this performance. She rather insisted, after the Sony hack last year revealed (to her) that she was being paid less than some of her male co-stars in big movies. She’s worth it, like the ad says. When she arrives the film takes off, if you’ll pardon the pun. She’s such a luscious, lusty figure on screen – like an old-fashioned siren but with lots of humour and warmth and down-to-earth reality, even when she’s a million miles into space. The chemistry with Chris Pratt, who’s so much more generic, gives the film a kick along, just when the wonder of the man-alone-in-a-white-castle idea starts to wane. Aurora brings out the best in Jim: he’s more charming, considerate and romantic – all the things we know he’s not.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum made The Imitation Game (about Alan Turing) a few years back, another story of a hidden man. This is on a grander scale, with all the Big Hollywood toys. And yet, they don’t constitute what’s good about the picture. If you read the American critics, there’s nothing good about it, but that’s harsh: the romance in space, with one half carrying a secret, has plenty of juice. Put that in spectacular settings, where the contrast of a perfectable universe rubs up against the imperfection of the human heart, and you have a strong theme that’s worth exploring. Instead, the movie falls back on the starting point of all modern action: let’s blow shit up.

Tyldum never quite concedes the ground to this mindlessness. The romance is what interests him, but producers want some bang for 150 million bucks. That’s life in a Star Wars universe. Given the unfortunate timing of the film’s release, those who want bang can just go see latest Star Wars. Passengers loses before it launches, even though it’s better than Rogue One, with stronger ideas, more humanity and better performances. It even has a funny robot – and this one serves drinks.