The spaceship Avalon is bound for Homestead II, a new world full of back-to-basics prospects beyond the gleaming megacities of Earth. The journey will take 120 years, so the 5,000 passengers and 259 crew remain suspended in hibernation pods until four months before they reach their destination. That is, aside from Jim (Chris Pratt) who has had an unfortunate awakening just 30 years into the journey thanks to an asteroid strike. Armed with the knowledge that he will likely die of old age before anyone else wakes up, he spends his time trying to break into the command centre, trying to fix his pod, growing an impressive beard, walking the corridors stark naked and chatting to android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). After a year in which Jim’s optimism and resilience has slowly been replaced by a crushing sense of hopelessness and suicidal ideation, he finally finds himself with human company when the pod containing Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) also malfunctions. After her initial horror at her situation has subsided, Aurora agrees to go on a date with the only man in the universe available to her. So she’s not picky. Romance ensues. But all the while there’s the question of why Aurora’s pod malfunctioned a full year after Jim’s, and why the robot cleaners keep bumping into walls.
And so we have the high concept – two people stranded for the rest of their lives on a huge spaceship. And there the high concept ends. Sure, there’s some smart tech on display – robot restaurant waiters, holographic screens and video games, an info terminal and bartender with some semblance of AI personality, and a lovingly-designed spinning claw of a ship – but none of it is exactly new. Pretty to look at, but not gosh-wow ideas like Minority Report’s maglev cars or retina-scanning personalised billboards. And the plot does exactly the same. What can possibly happen to these two unfortunate souls? Plenty, but it’s easier to take your by-the-numbers rom-com script and replace half the comedy with little robot cleaners.
This is the film’s major failing. It has an epic concept. It has a director fresh from a slew of awards for The Imitation Game. It has one of the most sought-after, fun and bankable action stars around. And in Jennifer Lawrence it has a woman with several Oscar nominations, one win, two major franchises under her belt and a regular $20m paycheck by the time she was 25. But there’s nothing for her to get her teeth into, (though J-Law fans should note that there are plenty of slinky outfits to get her body into, so she effectively becomes window dressing). Chris Pratt has a little more meat to work with, though his child-being-told-off expression does elicit flashbacks to Parks & Rec’s Andy. While the charisma of the leads helps the movie along somewhat, the star of the show has to be Michael Sheen, who makes it all look effortless with a charm that covers a complete lack of emotional response.
No, scratch that. The star of the show is the FX. The $110m film sure looks pretty (even after 1/3rd of the budget went on the two leads’ wages). But there’s nothing fresh or new here either. And with CGI the way it is now, long gone are the days where good FX alone can make a film a success (you just try being released in 2016 Lawnmower Man!) It is telling that the script was floating around since 2011, that in pre-production it cycled through directors like Brian Kirk and Marc Forster, and actors like Keanu Reeves, Rachel McAdams, Emily Blunt and Reese Witherspoon. It seems that people liked the concept, but not the detail.This movie doesn’t deserve the critical panning it received. It doesn’t deserve the box office failure tag it will surely end up with. But it doesn’t deserve your love either. Because while it is perfectly watchable, it doesn’t show us anything new and it wraps the whole ensemble up in the comforting cliché of a slender-plotted rom-com blanket.