Unpacking the Baggage of 'Passengers'13 Mar, 2017 By: John Latchem
To hear most critics tell it, Passengers isn’t so much a love story as it is a tale of interstellar rape, given a happy ending through a morally ambivalent attitude toward Stockholm Syndrome. But to reduce the film to such a simplistic reading is to ignore many of the complex emotions at play within the characters involved, while at the same time overlooking the fact that the film generally agrees with the consensus of its detractors.
This essay is going to pretty much spoil the heck out of Passengers, so it’s best to avoid it until you check it. It’s available now on Digital HD, and will be available March 14 on Blu-ray, DVD and a 4K UHD/3D/Blu-ray combo pack from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
The film chronicles a starship hundreds of years into the future bringing 5,000 colonists from Earth to a new planet 120 years away. For most of the journey, the passengers and crew are asleep in hibernation pods while the ship operates on autopilot with robots conducting repairs and keeping everything clean. In the last four months of the trip, everyone wakes up and the trip essentially becomes a luxury cruise that helps everyone prepare for their new life.
As the film opens, the ship is damaged by an asteroid despite having shields against such things. The ship’s systems are able to repair most of the damage and compensate for what can’t be fixed, but the resulting malfunction causes one passenger, Jim (Chris Pratt) to wake up 90 years too early. He finds himself alone on the ship for more than a year with no recourse but to try out the ship’s amenities until he gets bored, and then wait for death.
As he contemplates suicide, he finds the pod of Aurora, an obvious Sleeping Beauty reference, and falls in love with her at first sight (she’s played by Jennifer Lawrence, so who wouldn’t?). He learns she’s a writer (her last name is Lane, as in Lois Lane?) and then reads all of her work, and watches interviews she has given, and in his loneliness comes to believe they’d be an ideal match.
Being an engineer, Jim has figured out how to bypass some of the ship’s systems that he has access to, including how to wake someone up from their pod. He considers waking up Aurora, but understands how morally repugnant that is, since she has no choice in the matter and would condemn her to the same, slow death sentence that fate has given him. But as people with an infatuation tend to do, he starts to believe that if she falls for him she would forget about whatever plans she was making on this new world.
So, he ends up waking her up, but then lying to her about it, passing it off as another pod failure (which she has no reason to doubt). Continuing the references (intentional or not) to Disney movies, their courtship involves hints of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
The filmmakers make an interesting choice to follow Jim through his thought processes before he wakes her up, giving the audience the full knowledge of the truth about Aurora’s circumstance as they get to know each other. This is the primary point that many critics seem to have tuned out the movie, as they consider Jim’s actions irredeemable. And it’s true that the film does have the effect of making the naturally charming Chris Pratt, the hero of Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World and The Lego Movie, seem like a huge creep. He's clearly riddled by guilt over what he's done, but whatever empathies we had for Jim being alone for so long are tossed aside, even though it’s not like he was in an enviable position to begin with. This is a prime example of how sci-fi can test characters in a fictional setting in order to make viewers consider what they may have done in that situation. Laurence Fishburne plays a crew member who wakes up later in the movie and, upon learning what he did, likens him to a drowning man reaching out for help and pulling someone else down with him; the second victim doesn’t deserve it, but it’s not like he’s still not drowning.
On the flip side, the full knowledge of what Jim did puts all our sympathies with Aurora, and J-Law’s performance is so good that it’s really easy to love her. Further, this structures the film in such as way to make it mostly about Jim’s character arc in dealing with his guilt and seeking redemption. Had the film used some editing tricks let the audience discover that Jim woke her up at the same time she learns about it, it would have put more emphasis on her own arc of having to adjust to having her life stolen from her, and made the final half of the movie less about him. The film as presented, then, can be seen as reducing her character even more to the sex object Jim first sees her as, which only earned the film more ire. (The key of when to let the audience in on a plot twist to affect their perception of a movie is nothing new, but I was particularly reminded of the key reveal in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.)
She does learn the truth, of course, after a year in which they start a sexual relationship (after an awe-inspiring spacewalking sequence — not fair!) and begin to fall in love, and we are as heartbroken as Aurora, in no small part because Lawrence really nails the despair and anger she is flooded with upon learning of Jim’s betrayal. So, for the second third of the film, she wants nothing to do with him, while he tries to explain why he did what he did. He still comes off as creepy, but we can at least see that Jim is a fundamentally decent guy all things considered, and he does have genuine feelings for Aurora. Understandably, she doesn’t care about any of his excuses, since she ascribes his actions as tantamount to murder.
This gets into why they were on the ship to begin with. Jim, as a mechanic, is of little use on a technologically advanced Earth where everything is replaced. He wants the challenge of a new frontier were he can build a house and solve new problems.
Aurora, on the other hand, is trying to establish herself in the shadow of a famous father, who encouraged her to go on adventures to have something to write about. So she wants to go to sleep for 120 years, live for a year on a new planet, go back to Earth after another 120 years asleep, and then write a book about living 250 years in the future. Jim’s actions have robbed her of her audience. All she can do now is write about her life alone on the ship, which is not appealing to her. While critics have rightly pointed to her lack of agency in her life on the ship, it’s important to note that her goals here do factor into the decisions she ends up making in the final third of the film that have been met with so much disapproval.
For the third act, the film swerves a bit from exploring the various ethical motifs of its relationship drama and turns into more of a disaster film thriller, as the plot must address what caused the malfunctions to begin with. The asteroid strike has triggered a cascade failure of the ship’s computer, which will eventually cause the main reactor to fail and the ship to explode, killing everyone. The life-and-death struggle allows the story to sidestep the characters really dealing with their situation in lieu of some quick emotional shortcuts, which has drawn the ire of critics who were willing to cut Jim some slack and would have preferred a more intellectual resolution to the central character conflict instead of a Gravity-inspired action setpiece. The film is still entertaining, but such concerns are understandable.
What it boils down to is that in order to save the ship, Jim needed her help, so if she hadn’t have been awake, she would have died anyway. And his efforts to win back her trust and affection are accomplished by offering to sacrifice himself to save everyone’s life, leading her to realize that she’d then be put in the situation he had been in of being all alone for decades unless she woke someone up as well.
And it’s here the film throws in its final plot twist, as Jim, having been given access to new parts of the ship by Fishburne’s character (who, due to circumstances, doesn’t live long), is able to figure out how to use the medical equipment to put Aurora back to sleep for the rest of the trip. This gives finally gives her the choice she never had before in the movie, although it is a bit manipulative. By choosing to stay awake, the movie would suggest she cedes the moral high ground, thus earning more criticism.
However, I think those who would dismiss the film for reducing its ethical themes into a romantic context are missing a lot of what the film is trying to say. There are several scenes that tie into the moral implications of the narrative that almost everyone who discusses the film seems to overlook.
One scene involves Jim and Aurora looking at random sleeping passengers and playing a game about guessing the person's identity through looking at them. Aurora claims she she knows if she would befriend someone just on sight, something Jim sees as helping rationalize his decision as it implies some sort of sensory bond that stretches beyond a linear understanding of familiarity. He didn't just wake her up because he thought she was pretty. He took the time to get to know her through her writings and interviews. From his perspective, it likely wasn't much different from meeting a girl on a dating website, or in a bar, or at the park — he sees something in her that makes him think they would match well, and makes a case to convince her she should be with him. The big difference, of course, is that if he's wrong, as far as he knows at the time there's no recourse to put her back in the box. She can't just walk away and get on with her life — she's stuck on the ship too with someone she doesn't want to match with, and faced with the same dilemma of isolation.
So he's really betting the farm on them being compatible enough for her to be willing to choose him over her original plans for this trip. The fact that there's so much downside for being wrong explains his hesitancy in putting any sort of moves on her right away— giving her space, so to speak.
What the film doesn't get across so well is an idea that they don't seem to belong together, which she discusses in a voiceover of the character writing her book. It's a bit of a double-edged sword for the movie, in that his character is supposed to be sort of a nerdy loner who is more comfortable around machines than other people (Pratt's performance seems layered with hints of an aw-shucks introversion and social awkwardness), and yet if he's not played by someone as naturally charming as Chris Pratt there's a big question as to whether the audience would have abandoned him completely even as he's trying to redeem himself. To us, the characters aren't so much coming across as from different avenues of life as they are just Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence hanging out with great chemistry.
There's a bit more subtext to this on the Blu-ray, as there's a deleted scene in which she loads up on wine and calls him in the middle of the night to essentially make fun of how much of a loser he is, that there's no way she would have chosen to be with him in a normal circumstance, and she only slept with him out of boredom. It’s cruel, but hard to argue it’s unearned.
But the fact that she did spend a year with him also affects her decision later in the movie when she's given the choice of going back into suspended animation. This is really where the rubber meets the road as far as the ethical dilemmas of the film are concerned, as Jim is basically saying to her, 'look, I know I screwed up, but I do have genuine feelings for you, and I think you have feelings for me, too. If you truly think what I did was horrible, you can go back to sleep and never see me again, and live the life you wanted.' But I think playing into her decision in this regard was a scene, after learning the truth that Jim woke her up, in which she watches her friends leaving video messages to say goodbye to her. One friend even brings up the fact that when Aurora wakes up, the friend will be dead. This had to stir the internal dilemma within Aurora about what exactly she was doing with her life. Aurora was engaging this trip just to write a story about it because she thought it would make her unique. It would give her fame, sure, but her friend wishes for her to find someone to settle down with and be happy. (Jennifer Lawrence, speaking in the Blu-ray bonus featurettes, actually argues that Aurora's life is so without purpose that being woken up is actually the best thing that could have happened to her.)
There are a couple of quotes in the film that encapsulate what the characters are dealing with. In one, Aurora, first attempting to deal with the implications of waking up early, describes her plight thusly: “I may well spend the rest of my life here … traveling forever, never arriving.” This becomes an especially poignant statement regarding her character once we learn what she's really up to, and in light of some advice given to Jim by the robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), repeating by Aurora as the closing line of the film: “You can’t get so hung up on where you’d rather be that you forget to make the most of where you are.” This evokes the classic maxim that life is about the journey, not the destination, which is a lesson I think we are meant to believe Aurora comes to realize thanks to her brush with death. Any decision to forigive Jim could be an honest reaction to his self-sacrifice (she at one point suggests letting the ship blow up rather than deal with the idea of killing him so she and everyone else could live), or it could just come down to accepting her situation for what it is — she may be stranded, and he may have stranded her, but is staying angry going to soothe the soul as much as going with the flow? Given the events that transpire, she may even start to believe fate had a hand in convincing him to wake her up.
So, Aurora's friend's words resonate when Jim tells her she can go back to sleep, and her first reaction is to express concern for leaving him alone, and that she’d never see him again. In thinking back to her friend’s message, she is possibly realizing how easily she is able to dismiss the people in her life for the sake of her own selfish motives. So yes, he was selfish in waking her up, but she was, in her own way, selfish in leaving her friends behind to take this trip, so that moment where she's able to return to her plan brings their relationship back into balance, which to me makes the ending of the film not only easier to swallow, but easier to appreciate on its own terms.