Passengers had a reputation as a risky project in Hollywood. A US$120 million ($173 million) science fiction romance centred on just two characters stuck on a spaceship? The script might be superb, but that's an expensive sell for an industry looking for guaranteed returns.
At one point both Focus Features and The Weinstein Company were in the hunt but each eventually walked away. With The Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum interested, Sony Pictures decided to come on board and then had the good fortune of convincing global powerhouses Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt to star. Based on the extremely early first look provided at CinemaCon on Tuesday night, Passengers should join Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as two of the must-see films of the holiday season.
To stress how much they believe in the picture, Sony flew in both Pratt and Lawrence to talk up Passengers to the world's theatre owners. The duo are as charming and blunt as you'd expect, but the movie footage really did the talking.
Set on the spaceship Avalon, the preview begins as the film does with Jim (Pratt) awakening from hibernation on a trip to the new Homestead Colony.
"Jim is a mechanic and he's the type of guy who fixes things," Pratt says. "He uses his hands and in the world he lives in when something is broken you don't fix it. You order a new one. So he's become obsolete and he's travelling to a distant planet, a new world, a new future hoping [for the best]."
Pratt's character soon discovers he's the only passenger who has been prematurely revived and that he's only 30 years into the 120-year journey to the new planet. That is until another voyager, Aurora (Lawrence), is also mysteriously awoken.
"My character is a writer in New York," Lawrence reveals. "She wants to be the first person to make the first 120-year journey to another planet and come back and write about it."
She quickly learns that Jim has been wandering the ship for over a year and unable to access the section that might induce hibernation again for the rest of the journey.
Of course, the preview teases that with only each other to depend on they begin to fall for each other romantically. Meanwhile, the ship begins to sporadically malfunction. One impressive sequence finds Aurora swimming in a pool underwater when the gravity fails. Because of how water reacts in zero gravity she literally has to try and pull herself out of it before drowning. You know Lawrence's character has to survive the ordeal, but the scene may still have you on the edge of your seat.
The audience were warned that the special effects were still temporary, but it's obvious Tyldum has fashioned a very commercial thriller for the masses. It's worth noting that while the sets are massive they're also decidedly less stylish than you might assume. From what was shown cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (The Wolf of Wall Street) also appears to have shot the picture in the most conservative style of his storied career. In fact, Passengers looks exactly like Sony was hoping for, a big studio event picture that could easily stand alongside The Martian as a unique story powered by charismatic superstar leads.
As for Pratt and Lawrence, they inevitably found it hard to control themselves and stick to the introduction script. "I'm breaking away from the teleprompter," Pratt announces. "Here's to you guys. I hope you're getting drunk and having fun and making lots of mistakes. That's what Vegas is all about. I'm not exactly sure how a movie theatre works. You do ... "
"I worked in a movie theatre," Lawrence admits as the audience applauds.
"Whoever you call to order popcorn and soda stuff, double up the order right around Christmas cause you're gonna sell a lot of it," Pratt says pointedly to the distributors. And after a slight pause adds, "That was the joke."
Pratt then tries to punctuate the bit by dropping his microphone, but it misses the floor and lands somewhere else. "Ow, you dropped it on my foot!" laughs Lawrence.
At that point, after the laughter died down a bit, it was evident to everyone in the auditorium that after Passengers, everyone is going to want Lawrence and Pratt to star in another movie together.
Sony's competitors are no doubt standing by ready to write the cheque.