Passengers emerges from the screen on 3D Blu-ray, with a solid technical delivery of a beautiful but empty story.
The Production: 2.5/5
Passengers is without a doubt a truly beautiful film, whether it is seen in 2D or 3D. It is sumptuously produced, handsomely designed and cast, and it frequently gives the viewer plenty of eye candy to enjoy, whether that be the lovely interiors of the transport ship Avalon or the equally lovely exteriors we get to visit at various points. Lead actors Chris Pratt (Jim) and Jennifer Lawrence (Aurora) are appealing enough personalities and actors to carry pretty much any story through the 2 hours of this film’s running time. So what went wrong? To say it simply, there’s just no there there. The simple plot of the film involves what happens when civilian passengers Jim and Aurora are awakened from hibernation 90 years before their ship arrives at their new home on a distant planet. Once the passengers are active, we can see that the ship is intended to carry thousands of people – but only our leads are awake, leading to many scenes showing the incredible isolation and emptiness of what is essentially an unmanned cruise ship. Instead of pursuing several potential story routes, the movie settles for a fairly simple path, and sadly winds up as empty as the Avalon itself. Again, it is beautiful to watch – there just isn’t any substance to the cotton candy – and when the movie does tentatively venture towards any substance, it shies away just as quickly.
SPOILERS: The first thing to note about the story is that the advertising has been more than a little misleading. Watching the promotion of the movie, one would think this is the story of both of these people being awakened so many years too early. But it’s not so, as Little Bill would tell us. Instead, the story is really about Jim being awakened by himself after a large asteroid impacts the ship and causes his hibernation pod to malfunction. While Jim is a civilian engineer, the story denies him access to the real problems facing the ship, so all he knows is that he is essentially alone on a giant cruise ship with only robots for company, and has no way to reach any other human being. And this is where the movie faces its first brush with substance – how does someone deal with living in total isolation without completely losing their mind? Admirably, the movie takes a few steps down the road of Kubrick’s The Shining, including the creation of a golden barroom set that looks eerily similar to the one in the infamous Overlook Hotel. It even takes Jim to the point of suicide, all the while showing the audience these beautiful, empty spaces that are the world he is now consigned to inhabit. And then the movie pulls back from the brink, opting instead to give Jim a more conventional problem.
MORE SPOILERS: As chance happens, Jim discovers an interesting passenger in the sleeping car area – author Aurora, who’s both attractive to Jim and seems like she could be a kindred spirit. Except that she’s in hibernation and won’t be awake for another 90 years. And here’s where the movie faces its second brush with substance – is it okay for Jim to artificially awaken Aurora from hibernation? Jim himself doesn’t struggle too long with this before figuring out how to change the wiring in her pod and bring her into his world. The movie then actually goes down a fairly creepy path – as Jim befriends Aurora without telling her what he’s done to her. The movie becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch, as Jim takes more and more advantage of the situation – until the ship’s robot bartender (Michael Sheen) mistakes one of Jim’s cues and blabs the truth to her. And once again, the movie pulls back from the brink, settling instead for a series of scenes of Aurora being understandably furious with Jim.
YET MORE SPOILERS: Of course, the movie still has that malfunction subplot running, so the third act of the film introduces Laurence Fishburne as Gus, one of the ship’s crew, mistakenly awakened from hibernation and suffering from a variety of problems due to the increasing malfunctions having fatally damaged both his pod and him. But while he’s on his feet, he’s able to point Jim and Aurora to the actual problem facing the ship and the two must work together to repair the damage before the ship’s reactor melts down and everyone onboard is killed. So now the movie becomes a combination disaster film and an opportunity for a few truly stunning moments of beautiful chaos – the best coming when the ship’s gravity fails while Aurora is swimming in the Avalon’s luxury pool and the water forms a giant deadly bubble around her. (One shudders to think what the Final Destination writers would do with this situation…) As the mission of fixing the ship continues onward, we are meant as an audience to forgive Jim for his actions with Aurora, since he would not have been able to fix the ship without her being there. And the movie goes so far to have Aurora herself do that, presumably to make it alright for the audience to make the same leap. In the big finale, as a kind of gentle combination of Gravity and Prometheus, Jim sacrifices himself to vent the reactor and is knocked into space, only to be rescued by Aurora in a neat reversal of the death scene for George Clooney in Gravity and then to be revived by Aurora in a medical pod in a neat reversal of the “birth” scene from Prometheus. The problem here, other than the audience likely not being able to accept what Aurora is doing, is that these moments, while spectacular to watch, frankly lack the weight that the earlier film’s scenes possessed. (And yes, I am aware that I might be playing a bit with the notion of a spaceship movie having scenes that are weightless…)
FINAL SPOILERS: The movie gets one final chance to do something interesting in its last minutes. The resuscitated Jim realizes that the medical pod can actually allow Aurora to go back into hibernation and thus go back to the life she had intended to have before he interrupted it. After the characters discuss this, there is a series of brief scenes showing Jim and Aurora enjoying the ship and each other again, and one wonders whether this is all happening in Jim’s head. Do we go from a moment of the two of them frolicking in the pool to a moment of realizing that Jim is actually alone again? (I would argue that this could have made for a much more interesting ending – to see them together, then realize he’s alone, and then have the camera take us back to the medical pod to see that she actually is no longer with him.) Or do we play the idea that Jim has in fact always been alone and has hallucinated the entire plot with Aurora? But, no. The movie plays it safe again and makes it very clear that Aurora truly did choose to stay with Jim on the ship for the next 90 years, and the movie ends on an embarrassingly pat moment as the full ship’s crew awakens to find all the plants that Jim and Aurora nurtured have turned into a jungle on the main deck. (I must also point out that the movie neatly ignores what kind of damage may have been done to many of the passengers and crew by the same malfunctions that killed Gus – we’re meant to assume that everyone is alright the moment that Jim and Aurora fix the ship.)
SPOILERS NOW DONE. IT’S SAFE TO READ FROM HERE FORWARD: Looking at the movie objectively, I repeat that it’s a beautiful construction and a handsome production to watch. Director Morten Tyldum is extremely clear in his staging, just as he was in 2014’s The Imitation Game. But like that earlier film, Passengers resolutely stays on its surface. And when you have a performer like Jennifer Lawrence and a potentially deep story idea, it’s really just a shame to not use them to their potential.
Passengers was released on Blu-ray and 4K on March 14th. The 4K release includes a 3D Blu-ray disc of the movie and the 2D Blu-ray as well. The 4K and 3D discs are each movie only, but the 2D Blu-ray contains about 50 minutes of bonus features. Instructions for downloading a digital copy of the movie are included on an insert in the packaging.
I should note that for this review, I am evaluating the 3D Blu-ray and the 2D Blu-ray, but not the 4K.
3D Rating: 5/5
Passengers is presented in a 2.39:1 1080p AVC transfer (avg 26 mbps) on 2D Blu-ray and a 2.39:1 1080p MVC transfer (avg 24/15 mbps) that looks spectacular. Both in 3D and in 2D, this movie is a technical pleasure to watch. In 2D, there is a richness to the colors and a lovely amount of detail in all the sets and costumes to indulge throughout the movie. In 3D, there are repeated opportunities to demonstrate dimensionality – multiple scenes of screens and windows and other forms of separation. Standout moments in 3D include the various spacewalks and the wild zero gravity pool experience. Passengers is not only a beautiful movie to watch – it’s also a reference quality picture presentation.
Passengers is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (avg 2.0 mbps, going up to 2.5 mbps for the bigger moments). It’s a solid mix, although the lower bitrate surprised me. There’s definitely a feel of the vastness of the ship and the small size of the characters in such an immense environment. The 2D and 3D Blu-rays also include a French-Canadian DTS HD MA track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
Special Features: 3/5
The 2D Blu-ray of Passengers comes with a passel of special features – including deleted scenes and four featurettes and a gag reel.
Deleted Scenes (9:49 Total, 1080p) – Eight deleted scenes are included here, including several additional looks at Jim’s early days after waking up and an interesting but unnecessary monologue by Gus in the bar.
Casting the Passengers (10:39, 1080p) – This featurette covers the small cast, mostly in terms of a series of mutual compliments among everyone. All four of the primary cast members are included in the discussions, and all four are happy to say nice things about each other.
Space on Screen: The VFX of Passengers (7:26, 1080p) – This featurette covers the CGI VFX work done for the film, as well as some discussion of the interactive lighting required to convince the viewer that the actors are indeed in the midst of the computer graphics. The zero gravity pool is one area that gets some welcome attention here.
On the Set with Chris Pratt (4:19, 1080p) – This featurette is mostly a compilation of fun moments of Chris Pratt on set, and a series of compliments showered on him by multiple crew and cast.
Creating the Avalon (9:35, 1080p) – This featurette covers the production design of the Avalon, including discussions about the basic design of the ship and the inspiration for various of the sets. The designer is quite upfront that the design for the barroom is an homage of sorts to The Shining.
Outtakes from the Set (4:23, 1080p) – A gag reel is included, with a series of silly moments and blown takes. Giggliest person on set turns out to be Jennifer Lawrence, and it’s clear that the rest of the cast were enjoying either watching her break or getting her to do so. One particular moment with Laurence Fishburne discussing the planets of the solar system is a study in watching Jennifer Lawrence slowly realize what Fishburne has done – and then lose it.
Book Passage (4:40, 1080p) – This is a series of four quick “commercials” for the Homestead Company, which operates the Avalon. If anything, the four commercials are a chance to see various of the sets in much greater detail for a minute or two.
Previews – A selection of new HD previews for Sony home releases is included in the menu. One of the previews is for a new VR game built around the plot of the movie.
Digital and Ultraviolet Copies – Instructions for obtaining digital and Ultraviolet copies of the movie are available on an insert in the packaging.
The film and special features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish. The usual pop-up menu is present, along with a complete chapter menu.
Passengers is a beautiful technical experience in both 2D and 3D. The movie looks and sounds great, transporting the viewer to a convincingly real and lovingly detailed future starship. The cast is an attractive one, and they’re clearly enjoying playing on this set. The 2D Blu-ray also comes with some nice special features to boot. The only real problem here is the actual story, which is far too simple and repeatedly takes the easy way out when there are potentials for something far more interesting to be told.