5th Passenger, a Star Trek reunion brought to us largely by a successful Kickstarter campaign, is the kind of cheap-looking science-fiction that makes up for its shoestring budget with an earnest appreciation for genre and capable suspense-building.
In the year 2151, Earth’s population has been ravaged by a class war and even in space inhabitants of ships are divided into “citizens” and “non-citizens”; the latter are referred to disparagingly as “roaches” by the bourgeoisie and given no respect, even in positions that they’ve earned. The heavy-handed social inequality subtext is courtesy of Scotty Baker, who also directs, with assistance from David Henri Martin and the film’s star, Morgan Lariah.
But 5th Passenger’s plot is a solid one. When their ship is demolished by an asteroid field, five crewmen are bundled into an escape vessel designed for four. With oxygen stores running low, the pod’s citizens, Franklin (Tim Russ) and Li (David Lim), debate killing the non-citizen stowaways to free up some air. But Miller (Lariah), the movie’s obligatory Ellen Ripley stand-in, is the only survivor who seems to be capable enough to get them out of the mess, and she won’t allow her lower-class buddies, Myers (Armin Shimerman) and Thompson (Manu Intiraymi), to be unceremoniously dispatched along the way.
The early going is refreshingly devoid of action and horror, instead allowing smart-ish characters to behave in a smart-ish way. Miller’s plan is to sacrifice some of the pod’s oxygen reserves to increase their thrust, bringing them closer to a likely rescue location, which goes down rather predictably with the secretive Franklin, who’s convinced that his contemporaries will be along to rescue him any minute now. No such luck. By the time a dark and abandoned ship containing incubators is being explored, it should come as no surprise that whatever Franklin’s so tight-lipped about isn’t friendly – and it’s on the pod.
It’s obvious that 5th Passenger is an Alien knockoff, but it feels more like loving homage than outright theft. The strong-willed female protagonist is a dead giveaway, and the film’s rife with callbacks to Ridley Scott’s classic, such as a debate about whether to let a potential contaminant bypass quarantine procedures and a desperate crawl through dimly-lit ventilation ducts. The comparison doesn’t do 5th Passenger any favours, but what it understands about Alien most of all is that what you don’t see or understand is scarier than what you do.
Which is to say that the film’s creature is a disappointing, faintly pathetic thing, and that the more screen time it’s given the less frightening it ends up being. 5th Passenger’s plot is unfurling through a memory-recording device, being pored over some time in the near-future by Marina Sirtis, and it often has the good sense to obscure its lacklustre visual effects with convenient playback issues. The third act could have used more of this, and would have undoubtedly been preferable to watching the characters grapple with an unconvincing slab of plastic.
Still, it’s worth suffering through the comical third act for a ballsy twist ending that gives 5th Passenger some staying power. It isn’t the kind of movie that’ll radically alter anyone’s perceptions about the monster-on-a-spaceship subset of sci-fi, but those who love such things will be willing to go along for the ride.