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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.