Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt might be a studio bean counter’s dream pairing. Jennifer Lawrence was ranked as the most bankable star in 2013 and 2014, while many sources proclaimed Chris Pratt to be the most bankable star of 2015. The blockbuster duo now star as Aurora and Jim in Passengers, an action-thriller about two strangers who are on a 120-year journey to another planet when their hibernation pods wake them 90 years too early. Jim and Aurora are forced to unravel the mystery behind the malfunction as the ship teeters on the brink of collapse, jeopardizing the lives of the passengers on the greatest mass migration in human history.
“Passengers is about two people who were supposed to be on the trip of a lifetime – the 120-year journey to a new planet – when they get woken up 90 years too early,” explains Pratt. “But it turns out there’s a reason they woke up early. They have to solve the mystery of the malfunction, and fix a ship that is quickly failing, if they are going to survive and save the lives of the passengers on the greatest mass migration in human history.”
Pratt’s character, Jim, decides to give up his life on Earth for very practical reasons. “He’s kind of a throwback,” says Pratt, “very much a working class guy. He’s considered a desirable trade, as a mechanical engineer, because he’ll be helping to start a civilization. If something breaks, he’ll be there to fix it.”
When Jim and Aurora wake up 90 years before reaching that destination, those skills kick into high gear. “He’s a problem solver by trade, so he’s trying to figure out how to get back to sleep or contact somebody for help. And then, it turns out that there’s something very wrong with the ship.”
“Chris is very different than Jim,” says Lawrence, who plays his fellow awakened passenger, Aurora. “Jim acts like he’s never really had a girlfriend, and he doesn’t really know how to behave around women; that’s charming and sweet, but it’s not like Chris at all, who’s married and funny. It was interesting to watch him go from Chris Pratt to a shy, insecure, romantic person.”
In contrast to Jim’s working-class hero, Aurora is part of a different social circle. She is a New York writer with a great assignment – she is making the 120-year journey to Homestead II, then will make the 120-year journey home. She will be the first person in human history to make the round trip. “It’s such a huge decision to make,” says Lawrence. “It’s a 120-year journey – when you arrive, everyone you know will be dead. You have to start a brand new life on a brand new planet that you’ve never been to. I can’t imagine saying goodbye to everybody that I know and love – I understand her thirst for more, but I don’t think I could make that kind of permanent decision.”
“When Aurora first wakes up, I think her first reaction is to feel an incredible empathy for Jim,” says Lawrence. “She’s only been dealing with this problem for a few days, and he’s been by himself, like a trapped animal, for more than a year. Seeing him react to a human being makes her feel bad for Jim.”
Aurora and Jim’s different stations in life are thrown into contrast by their home: the spaceship itself. “The Avalon is part badass spaceship, part luxury cruise liner,” says Pratt. “They wake you up three or four months before you get to your destination, so you can party, swim in the pool, or rack up a big bill playing the slots or shopping in the high-end stores.”
“The ship is really luxurious, almost like a cruise liner,” says Lawrence. “There’s an observation deck, a movie theater and grand concourse and amazing rooms – well, for my character. It looked very different; everything was beautiful and interesting. It was a different atmosphere for a movie.”
“The sets were huge,” says Pratt. “We had to break down a wall in the soundstages. I was looking around, and it was like looking at a real ship. Guy Hendrix Dyas’s sets made the movie big in scope and as epic as this story needs to be. We had a great special effects team that built amazing props and toys and cars and screens everywhere. It was really cool.”
Jim and Aurora’s companion is Arthur, the bartender on board the ship. An android with a remarkably human upper half, he moves with efficiency, grace, and skill, and responds to passengers’ worries and anxieties with a kind word and warm heart – if a little naïveté. “Arthur is an important element to their mental state, because he’s the closest thing to a human that they have besides each other,” says Lawrence.
“He’s programmed to be the greatest bartender ever,” says Michael Sheen, who plays Arthur. “He’s empathetic, he’s able to listen, and he mixes a fantastic martini. But there’s a limit to how much he’s interacted with people: he’s usually dealt with thousands of people in very short interactions, but he’s in new territory with Jim, interacting with one person for a very long period of time.”
The role required Sheen to be prepared to move with a rig that would start and stop suddenly, without tensing or bracing his body and without revealing any discomfort in his facial expression. “When I accepted the role, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” says Sheen. “The special effects rig moved really fast, but was a great practical build as it made the performance feel more real.”
So, because Arthur is not quite human, Sheen and director Morten Tyldum (Oscar-nominated director for The Imitation Game) discussed just how to shade the performance subtly. “Bartenders are the ultimate confidants, and when Jim meets me, I am someone he can talk to,” says Sheen. “The challenge was I had to figure out the balance of how robotic and how human should Arthur be?”
But as luxurious as the ship and their surroundings are, Aurora and Jim soon realize that something has gone terribly wrong.
“The ship is falling apart,” Pratt explains. “Robots start to malfunction, lights flicker on and off. Ultimately, our characters find out that there’s a reason why it’s malfunctioning, and we are suddenly in a desperate situation, trying to fix a problem to save not only our own lives, but the lives of all of the other passengers on the ship.”
But it is not until Laurence Fishburne’s character Gus Mancuso wakes up that Jim and Aurora understand the gravity of the situation. “He’s a spacer – a man who fell in love with the stars and the notion of interplanetary travel at a young age, and has spent a lifetime traveling in space,” Fishburne explains. “Luckily, he’s a crew chief, so he has access to certain things that they wouldn’t have access to as passengers, and he helps them figure out what’s wrong with the ship.”
One of the problems on board the ship is that the gravity fails. Suddenly, Jim and Aurora find themselves weightless. Pratt explains, “I was pulled up by wires, but I had to pretend that gravity wasn’t pulling down on my hands and feet. To do that, you’re doing a plank in mid-air. It was one of the best ab workouts I’ve ever done! It was really difficult, and Morten was very particular – he wanted it to look perfect. He didn’t move on until that angle was perfect for the whole take.”
To create the appearance of Jim being weightless, stunt coordinator Garrett Warren created a spinning ring with an extension of a speed rail and a counter balance weight on the back of it. Chris Pratt would be able to move freely and then Garrett’s stunt team would use winches to fly him back and forth.
Aurora is in a swimming pool when the gravity fails. “That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever shot,” says the Hunger Games star. “Spending that much time in a pool, water up my nose, everywhere. But it was amazing – when I saw the CG example of what it was going to look like, I was really excited. I’ve never seen anything like that in a movie.”
“Passengers is an epic, in that it really has everything in one movie,” says Pratt. “It’s adventure, it’s romance, it’s a thriller, it’s scary, but it’s emotionally resonant. There are great moments of humor and spectacle.”
Passengers opens in theaters December 21st.