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January 7, 2017

Movie Curiosities: Passengers

Passengers was made from a Black List script by Jon Spaihts, who may be a familiar name. He’s a prominent up-and-coming screenwriter, following his work on Prometheus and Doctor Strange. He also wrote the upcoming The Mummy remake, the long-awaited superfranchise pilot do-over for the Universal Monsters stable. However, all of those projects had so many cooks in the kitchen that none of them reflect very well on Spaihts’ own skills and tastes. By comparison, this is a solo screenwriting effort that isn’t part of a franchise, so the time has truly come to see what he’s made of.

Along for the ride (so to speak) is a phenomenal cast full of such proven talents as Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, and Andy Garcia. But then we have Morten Tyldum, who previously got a Best Director nod for The Imitation Game. Quite a leap from a period bit of WWII-era Oscar-bait to a spacefaring hard sci-fi drama.

I wanted to give this film a chance in spite of the poor reviews. This one really did have the potential to surprise everyone and end up as something truly special. Sadly, it only ended up as a morally questionable mess.

The trailers advertised a movie set on a massive spaceship headed for an off-world colony. Except that because this ship is traveling at sublight speeds, the journey takes 120 years, during which time all the crew and passengers on board are in hypersleep. And two passengers — Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) — inexplicably wake up 90 years early, just in time to deal with everything crumbling apart around them.

And that is indeed pretty much the premise of the film… but with a couple of details the trailers left out.

First of all, the movie opens with the spaceship Avalon charging directly through an asteroid field, colliding with an especially big rock. So we know exactly what went wrong from the word go and there’s no mystery whatsoever. Sure, some details need to be discovered and fixed, but it’s still more or less a wait for the characters to catch up with the audience. Moreover, because the story is so heavily powered by random technical glitches, a lot of problems and solutions crop up at plot-convenient times by deus ex machina. You know that shot in the trailer where Lawrence is trying not to drown in a pool gone zero-g? That’s actually an example of both!

But the second and bigger detail… whoo boy.

See, when the asteroid collision hits, Jim is the only one who wakes up. No one else, just him. He’s surrounded by AI machines that stubbornly insist the sleeping pods are failproof, he was supposed to wake up four weeks before landing (so everyone on board could deal with hibernation sickness, practice their trade, meet their fellow passengers, learn about life on the colony, etc.), the destination is 90 years away, a passenger is awake and talking to them, and there’s absolutely no paradox there whatsoever. Jim tries contacting Earth for help, but the distance means that a response won’t come for another 56 years.

So Jim’s only real companion is an android barkeep named Arthur (Michael Sheen), who’s preternaturally cheery and built directly into the ship’s bar. Sure, Jim has what’s basically an interplanetary luxury cruise liner at his disposal, with all the food and entertainment he could ever ask for, but he’s still suffering for how lonely he is. It also doesn’t help that he’s tried every possible option for getting into the bridge or going back to hypersleep, and every failed attempt chips away at what little hope he has left.

Then he finds Aurora.

Jim learns about Aurora, watches her video interview (everyone has one on file, I suppose), reads everything she’s ever written, and immediately falls in love with the Sleeping Beauty he’s never even met. Then he gets the terrible, awful idea of waking her up so she could be with him and he wouldn’t have to spend the next 90 years alone. Which means they’d both die alone on the ship together before ever setting foot on their destination. And this would have to be done without her consent.

Seriously, think about how fucked up that is.

Aurora is up and out of her pod by the end of the first act. From her discovery to her awakening, that’s just about a grand total of fifteen minutes spent examining what’s actually a deep and complex moral conundrum. To be fair, it’s an established fact that something’s gone wrong with the ship, and having a second pair of hands — even inexperienced ones — would be better than having no help at all, especially if the lives of over 5,000 people are at stake. But however understandable it may be for a drowning man to take someone else down with him, that doesn’t give him the right to make that choice and it doesn’t excuse him from what basically amounts to manslaughter.

If Jim had spent the entire film looking up everything about Aurora, talking to the woman in her sleep, maybe even interacting with her in daydreams, and refusing to “break the glass” until the climax — if ever — that might potentially have made for a poignant bit of psychological drama. Or shit, what if she had just woken up at the same time, or if her pod spontaneously woke her up without his input? It wouldn’t be any more random than most of the other technical glitches that happen in this picture!

But no, Jim knows that it’s a reprehensible thing to do, but he goes and does it anyway at the half-hour mark. And naturally, Jim keeps it a secret that he’s the reason she woke up, because he’s such an upstanding guy like that. Thus the two of them strike up a romance until Aurora inevitably finds out.

(Side note: We do get a few sex scenes between the two characters, but Lawrence is always tastefully covered. There’s quite a bit of Pratt’s ass on display, though.)

In this way, we basically get the story in which two lovers are all alone on a spaceship, and then we get a story in which two people are alone and forced together on a spaceship even though they hate each other. Both of which are potentially interesting stories. It’s just a damn shame that the filmmakers couldn’t commit to one or the other.

And here’s what makes it even worse. Even after it’s been proven that Jim is an awful person, he knows that he’s awful person, and Aurora justifiably despises him because he’s an awful person who basically sentenced her to die on this ship… the filmmakers still try to make this a straightforward crowd-pleaser. Which means that Jim still has to save the day and get the girl.

BULL. FUCKING. SHIT.

I realize that opinions may be split on this. You might say that no one is beyond redemption and a pardon can be earned for any crime, and you certainly wouldn’t be wrong. But for a movie to put so much lip service into condemning a character, and for it to be so thoroughly established that Aurora is so completely justified in her absolute hatred of him, only for everything to be forgiven in the third act so she can rush into his arms at the last minute, is reprehensible.

That said, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence both turn in solid work with what they were given, and Michael Sheen works very effectively as the comic relief. Laurence Fishburne makes an impression, though he only has maybe ten minutes of screen time and he primarily acts as a plot device. As for Andy Garcia, he only shows up in the last fifteen seconds and he doesn’t even get a line.

Something else I’ll say for the movie is that it’s amazing on a technical level. The production design is staggering from start to finish, the visual storytelling with regards to the ship’s autopilot is nicely clear, and I really liked the Thomas Newman score. I don’t question the filmmakers’ effort — I question their intelligence and morality.

If Passengers was just a story of two love interests stuck on a malfunctioning spaceship, it might potentially have been a satisfying romance/sci-fi/action blend. Alternatively, if the film had been all about the plight of one man stuck alone on a spaceship, struggling with the morality and the consequences of waking up someone else, it might have been a fascinating bit of brooding psychological sci-fi drama. But the filmmakers tried to have it both ways, and they tried it in the most tin-eared, insensitive, boneheaded bullshit way possible. So much potential greatness undone by that one dumbass decision. Such a damn shame.

What it comes down to is this: If you feel that Jim’s choice is justifiable and/or forgivable, then the moral lapse may not bother you as much and I’m sure you’ll have a good time watching the movie. Otherwise, avoid at all costs.

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