Lawrence Toppman

‘Passengers:’ Dross in space

How often have we seen this pattern? A foreign director makes an acclaimed small movie in his own language, winning international awards. He follows it with a small-scale, respected English-language film. Producers entice him to a project with a huge budget, a wide cinematic canvas and vast ambitions, and he drowns in money.

So it is with Morten Tyldum, whose 2011 crime drama “Headhunters” became the highest-grossing film in Norway’s history. He followed that three years later with “The Imitation Game,” a drama about gay codebreaker Alan Turing that earned eight Oscar nominations. (Tyldum is the only Norwegian director ever nominated.)

Now comes “Passengers.” It has a worthy cast, headed by Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, and a satisfying concept: A man and a woman on an interstellar journey awaken 90 years too early from cryogenic sleep and have to figure out why – and what they should do, other than waiting decades to die among the frozen bodies around them.

So what went wrong?

Not much for the first two-thirds, as engineer Jim Preston (Pratt) and writer Aurora Lane (Lawrence) bond, interacting with a wry android bartender (Michael Sheen), until an emotional crisis causes them to face decades of enmity, alone.

Then the film collapses. A crew member conveniently rouses in time to diagnose the ship’s imminent destruction. (Laurence Fishburne brings dignity to this nondescript part.) When he’s indisposed, Aurora and Jim set out to fix it. “What are we even looking for?” she asks. “Something broken. Something big,” he informs her.

Suddenly, Jim becomes a superhero impervious to pain or damage and a genius who can fix problems on a vessel he never saw before boarding it. Aurora turns first into a scream queen, then into a dogged heroine who joins Jim in making miracles.

Pratt doesn’t have enough depth to sustain the section where Jim sinks into solitary despair. His basset-hound eyes suggest someone who didn’t get the right kibbles at dinner, not someone inches away from suicide. (This would have been a better picture had his role and Lawrence’s been reversed.)

She has often shown she’s a fine actress, but she can’t do that by crying, “Jim, come back to me! I can’t live in this ship without you!” If screenwriter Jon Spaihts wanted us to believe Aurora’s a respected journalist, he needed to prove that; her musings read like a high school essay.

The final failure comes in a climax that defies science, good taste and common sense. Until then, Tyldum spends his money on Guy Hendrix Dyas’ impressive production design and Rodrigo Prieto’s well-judged cinematography. But when the ship’s reactor explodes in a titanic fireball, it seems like a metaphor for “Passengers” itself.

Toppman: 704-358-5232


Cast: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne.

Director: Morten Tyldum.

Length: 116 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (sexuality, nudity and action/peril).