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Non-Review Review: Passengers

Passengers is a super creepy tale of male entitlement.

The movie has an intriguing science-fiction premise. On a sleeper ship intended to ferry passengers to the colony world of Homestead II, a freak accident awakens James Preston. The only problem is that Preston awoke far too early. Preston awoke approximately thirty years into a one-hundred-and-twenty-year voyage. The engineer is now destined to spend the rest of his life as the only waking inhabitant of a gigantic city ship, living and dying completely alone. It is a horrifying thought.

"We need a little space."

“We need a little space.”

There are suggestions of a powerful science-fiction epic to be found in the film. Jim finds his every physical need has been anticipated. He can live a life of material luxury. He will never want for food or space or activity. He effectively has a gigantic space craft all to himself. And therein lies the rub. Feeling almost like a sadistic episode of The Twilight Zone, Jim grapples with the question of what he will or will not do in order to end his loneliness. In his desperation, Jim makes a horrifying (if entirely understandable) decision.

The biggest problem with Passengers is that it strains too hard to make that decision palatable instead of terrifying. It is a super creepy tale of male entitlement that brushes aside any of this issues in favour of a much more conventional action romance.

Peace in a pod.

Peace in a pod.

Note: Very minor spoilers for Passengers follow. If you know the cast list, you can probably deduce where the movie is going from the opening ten minutes.

Basically, Jim decides that he cannot live alone. In a fleeting moment of desperation, he considers suicide. However, he ultimately settles upon a more provocative course of action. “If you were stranded on a desert island,” Jim asks his robotic bartender, “and you could wish for somebody else to be there too, would you do it? Even it mean they were stuck there too?” Jim decides to wake another passenger, so that he might have a companion for the rest of his long and well-maintained life.

Jim is surprisingly careful in his choice. By chance, he notices a beautiful young blonde woman sleeping in a particular pod. Perhaps her name catches his attention; “Aurora” seems like the perfect name for a space buddy. Perhaps his choice is motivated by less thematic factors; the woman in question is played by Jennifer Lawrence. Whatever the reason for his choice, he proceeds to listen to her log entries and view her records. He eats beside her sleeping pod. Eventually, he makes the decision to wake her up.

Think of it as a space-age Sleeping Beauty by way of an online dating app.

Think of it as a space-age Sleeping Beauty by way of an online dating app.

It goes without saying that this entire set-up is remarkably creepy. It plays as a space-age Sleeping Beauty story, in which a rugged prince charming helps himself to a kiss from a slumbering maiden. Jim does not consider waking a male passenger, nor does he seem to consider a lottery to determine who will be stuck with him. Instead, he seems to carefully audition and meticulously study the woman whom he has chosen. He wakes her, knowing that he is the only other person whom she will see for the remainder of her natural life.

This is a horrifying choice. It is also an understandable choice, given the factors at play. The biggest problem with Passengers is the casting of Chris Pratt as Jim Preston. Pratt is a charismatic and charming leading man, whose laddish demeanour makes ever error in judgement seem like an innocent miscalculation. Pratt tends to play goofballs, but they are goofballs whose errors are rooted in good intentions. It is impossible to remain mad at Chris Pratt. It seems like being stranded on a space ship with Chris Pratt might not be the worst way to spend a life.

"You're my one in five thousand."

“You’re my one in five thousand.”

It is interesting to wonder how Passengers might play were Jim Preston played by a less traditionally handsome and roguishly charming actor. Had a character played by Ben Mendelsohn or Michael Shannon stirred Jennifer Lawrence from her slumber, it would be much harder for the audience or the script to forgive or excuse his predatory male entitlement. In fact, it could be argued that Passengers would be a much better film had some internal casting been reversed, with Michael Sheen playing the role of the desperate and lonely Jim Preston.

However, Chris Pratt’s charisma exerts a gravity that puts even the most powerful centrifuge to shame. Passengers cannot help but look past Jim’s indiscretions and errors in judgement, his creepy manipulations and selfish games. Passengers instead focuses on Jim’s goofy charm and his sincerity, insisting that one single (albeit horrific and extended) indiscretion should not distract the audience from the fact that Jim is a pretty decent guy who must be great fun with which to spend time.

This is not a worrying sign at all.

This is not a worrying sign at all.

To be fair, Passengers fleetingly acknowledges the consequences of Jim’s decision. Jennifer Lawrence does great work in the role of Aurora, although she is handicapped by the script. Lawrence is afforded the opportunity to play righteous anger at the man who has effectively sentenced her to death as a balm for his own loneliness. There is a wonderful sequence in the middle of the film that underscores this creepiness, as Jim tries to speak to Aurora through the ship’s intercom system. Lawrence screams and rants with somebody who knows she is entirely right.

However, Passengers refuses to concede this ground. In fact, the entire film seems to be constructed as a Rube Goldberg device leading to Jim’s redemption in such a way that the betrayal can be healed and all can be put back in its proper place. There is something deeply frustrating about the film’s final act, with its stubborn insistence that Jim can prove himself a good man by reversing the damage that has been done. When another character is asked to pass judgement on Jim late in the film, he offers the moral equivalent of a shrug.

Droid rage.

Droid rage.

“A drowning man’s gonna try to take someone down with him,” Aurora is told, as if that offers justification as much as explanation. Passengers refuses to even commit to that wishy-washy condemnation. Pitching itself as a science-fiction romance, Passengers tries to argue that there must be a silver lining for the poor soul who finds themselves drawn under by the desperate grip of that drowning sailor. Passengers is a film that might dare to argue that the sea is a really beautiful place, well worth exploring.

The film’s final act is especially spineless in its handling of the relationship between Jim and Aurora. Passengers hinges on any number of ridiculous plot points; most notably that it is impossible for Jim to either put himself back into stasis and that he cannot wake a member of staff to assist him. However, the incredibly trite conclusion to Passengers finds a method of redemption for Jim that feels like a betrayal of the core premise. In the final minutes of the movie, Jim makes a discovery that would have rendered the entire exercise pointless had he looked for it earlier.

"So... maybe we can try couples' therapy?"

“So… maybe we can try couple’s therapy?”

All of this is a shame, because there is a lot to like about Passengers. Most notably, it is interesting to see deep space travel presented as something that is existentially terrifying. All too often, science-fiction movies gloss over the scale and scope of space through plot devices like “hyperspace” and “warp drive.” The basic premise of Passengers hinges on the idea that space is impossibly vast, that one can hurdle through the void for an entire life time without actually getting anywhere. It is a potent metaphor, one rarely explored in big-budget blockbuster science-fiction.

Similarly, Morten Tyldum delivers a very clean and streamlined science-fiction film. The starship at the heart of Passengers is a fascinating creation, a very sleek and streamlined piece of production design with a minimal amount of clutter. Passengers looks like it unfolds on a cruise liner, with lots of curves and glass to illustrate the comfort and luxury of these surroundings. Tyldum does an excellent job showcasing this luxury while also building a sense of loneliness and isolation. Jim has everything he physically needs, which makes this a particularly torturous hell.

Space off.

Space off.

Tyldum also does an excellent job at slowly building tension across the film towards the inevitable action climax, populating the film with little beats and inconsistencies that do not amount to much in isolation but suggestion some deep and unsettling problem bubbling below the surface. A stronger version of Passengers might wed this mounting dysfunction to the psychological horror of the relationship between Aurora and Jim, but the script’s complete mishandling of that dynamic hobbles the film.

It is a shame, because there are a lot of interesting ideas in Passengers. Like Arrival before it, this is a movie that aspires to bold science-fiction ideas, only to lose sight of the characters caught within these vast and powerful plot mechanics. There might only be two humans awake on the Avalon, but there is a still a lot more humanity than Passengers can muster.

11 Responses

  1. ‘In fact, it could be argued that Passengers would be a much better film had some internal casting been reversed, with Michael Sheen playing the role of the desperate and lonely Jim Preston.’

    I think you are severely underestimating the number of people who find Michael Sheen charming…

    (Though granted I can’t for the life of me see why everyone is so enthused by Jennifer Lawrence, so I admit my tastes might be oddball.)

    • Having just seen the film I now think it would have worked better if Aurora had never been woken by Jim – not for the ethical reasons you have pointed out, but because it is at its most fascinating and thought provoking in the first twenty minutes when Jim is the only human around. ‘Castaway’ in space with a robotic Michael Sheen standing in for Wilson might have been very interesting (maybe ‘Red Dwarf’ played for drama?) You could still have Aurora have a digital presence as Jim plays her log entries without neccessarily ly waking her up.

      I know this sounds like I have a grudge against Lawrence but I’d feel the same if her part was being played by actresses I prefer like Emma Stone or Keira Knightley. It is strange because I love romances and so so on harder sci-fi but in this case I think it could work better.

      • That’s actually a very good observation. I really love the idea of Jim living a life of absolute luxury, but in complete isolation. Those are the strongest sections of the film by far. I also love your idea of “Red Dwarf played for drama.”

        Hey! I agree with you, and I love Lawrence. Well, love is a strong word, but “like very strongly.”

      • Heh, thanks!

    • To be fair, it’s not so much about the fandom as the actor themselves. I’m sure there are people who find Michael Shannon or Ben Mendehlson charming.

      Chris Pratt is incredibly charming. It’s genuinely amazing. The camera loves him. Hell, I kinda love him, despite the fact that his track record is pretty hit and miss. And Passengers is willing to go with that, not putting up any resistance. The film effectively “aw, shucks!” its way out of dealing with what his character does.

      Sheen can be very charming, but he can also be unnerving in a way that I have never seen Pratt be. Then again, I’m now imagining Passengers as an awkward Hugh Grant comedy.

      • Fair point, and yes Chris Pratt is indeed very charming. He even turned his character on ‘Parks and Recreation’ from a deadbeat loser boyfriend to a lovable doofus on personal likability alone (if you actually try and picture a less lovable actor in the role Andy as originally written is not a nice guy.)

  2. passenger is a very very expensive movie, expensive with a lot of idea and formation at the future, i can’t add more . just watch it and you can approve my short review thank you admin i will search for more article and be actif whit you .

  3. You have nailed it; great review thanks. This film starts as a great sci-fi, but it ends up a complete mashup of rom-com melodrama. I do enjoy a good sci-fi but this one is a mess.

  4. potential spoilers below:

    I wouldn’t have said that laurence fishburne’s character gave the moral equivalent of a shrug, or tried to justify his actions or even gave a wishy way condemnation. He just neither condoned nor condemned Jim. Okay I know that sounds like the same thing. What I mean is that he knows what Jim did was wrong (and made this clear when talking with him), but he understands why he did it. So even though he understands that the loneliness got to him and that ‘a drowning man will drag someone with him’, “Still. Damn,” and agrees with Aurora that what he did was murder.

    But yeah I agree that this film was held down by the fact that it needed Jim to be a hero, that his action led to saving everyone and if he hadn’t given into this despicable action that aurora would have died much sooner and that it needed this romance to have a happy ending even if that romance was based on Jim’s immoral action towards Aurora, even if he ended up redeeming himself by discovering the medical capsule could act as hibernation (which he only found out because of fisburne’s clearance). But I think that for such a charming likable character to have done this just makes it worse. If, in the opposite jim was a fat, uncleaven guy it wouldn’t have been as shocking. I know that’s not what you suggested (just a less charming guy), I’m only using it as an example.

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