(Watch out for spoilers!)
It is ever so fascinating to consider how a big Hollywood film -- with just a small shift in emphasis -- can slip from one genre right into another.
With a little clever tweaking and re-thinking, the beautifully shot and well-realized Passengers (2016) might have become a cinematic science fiction classic. It features a memorable setting (a sleeper vessel in deep space), strong performances, and the kernel of a great, intellectual theme.
But in the end, it backs away from its best ideas at half-light speed.
Sans the courage to really explore its narrative’s themes, however, Passengers is ultimately just a bit more than a glorified (though enjoyable enough…) Hollywood romance.
That this expensive film from director Moten Tyldum and writer Jon Spaihts ultimately falls short of a lofty goal saddens me a bit, not because I dislike happy endings, or romantic films in general, but because Passengers, in its first hour, stakes a claim for legitimate greatness as science fiction.
The film concerns human nature, loneliness, and the way that people seek advantages in all their relationships. Passengers is a story about love, for certain, but one about how, ironically, love can be a very selfish, hurtful thing in certain circumstances.
After contending with these worthy ideas, Passengers all but abandons them in its rock’em, sock’em third act, turning to action tropes and a romantic playbook that supports the apparent necessity of a conventional ending.
It is a long-standing rule in big-budget genre pictures that a climax must end with uplift and excitement, not reality, or emotional truth.
That necessity to be “happy” harms Passengers, transforming this work of art from an amazing experience to, simply, a better-than-average one. The film is not bad, for sure, but ultimately it disappoints because it gets so close to being something more than a romantic vehicle for two attractive, currently popular stars.
“I woke up too soon.”
In the future, a giant spaceship called the Avalon carries a crew of 258 and 5,000 passengers as it treks towards “the jewel of the occupied worlds,” the natural and unspoiled Homestead Colony. All those aboard the huge vessel are asleep in individual hibernation pods, and a complex web of ship’s systems tends to their well-being.
After Avalon’s run-in with an asteroid belt, the ship begins to malfunction, and the ship’s computer seeks to restore balance to its damaged network of operations. In one hibernation bay, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, awakens suddenly. He finds that he is the only person conscious on the ship, and that the Avalon is still a full ninety years distant from Homestead II.
Thus, Jim will spend the rest of his natural life alone, on a hunk of metal, in the middle of nowhere.
At first, Preston turns all of his intelligence towards re-activating the hibernation pod. When that endeavor fails, he attempts to send a message to Earth, only to learn that he won’t receive a response for 55 years. Jim also can’t contact the sleeping crew, because the door to that section of the ship is hermetically-sealed, and impregnable to drill, hammer, and saw.
Preston attempts to keep himself occupied for a ime by watching movies, playing basketball, dancing against a holographic game, and visiting with the ship’s android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen). But after a full year, he grows despondent and contemplates suicide.
And then, Preston sees Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in cryo-sleep. He reads all about her in the ship’s files, and watches videos of her, as well. She is the daughter of a famous writer, and a writer herself. Preston reads her books and then falls in love with her.
He struggles mightily with what to do, but ultimately decides to awaken Aurora, an act which will end his loneliness but condemn her to his fate; 90 years on a hunk of metal traveling the stars.
Aurora awakens unaware of what has occurred, and Preston lies to her, telling her that her pod must have malfunctioned too. As they get to know one another, Aurora and Preston fall in love.
Then one day, Aurora finds out the truth, even as the ship’s systems continue to malfunction…
“We’re passengers. We go where life takes us.”
Before I write about why I believe Passengers ultimately misses its mark, I want to discuss how terrific the first act is.
In short order, we meet Jim -- a hollowed-out looking Chris Pratt, who has gone too far losing weight -- and come to grips with his situation. He is alone, with no way to talk to anyone, and no way to restore his hibernation pod. Jim realizes that he will die of loneliness if he doesn’t do something, and then grapples with a moral decision.
Should he condemn a woman that he has fallen in love with to his fate? Can he live with himself if does that? Can he survive without doing that?
I love that a movie as big, complex, and technologically-based as Passengers is turns all of its drama on one human decision.
I’ll also say this, I am ashamed of my fellow movie critics for their lack of empathy in reviewing this movie.
Many of these reviewers actually termed Jim a “stalker” and said that he was creepy and perverted for wanting, simply, companionship, and seeking to find that companionship with Aurora.
Let’s review the facts again: Jim is alone, looking at a lifetime of isolation, and he makes a terrible, selfish mistake. But he is not a stalker, and the movie doesn’t advocate his actions, either. Jim is a man driven to the brink of suicide, who is looking for any tether to keep him alive. That doesn’t make what he does right in any sense, but it makes him human. It makes him one of us. We are all flawed, and we all make mistakes.
Let’s cut through the I’m-taking-offense-because-he’s-a-stalker bullshit and face facts. All of us seek advantages in our relationships all the time, fair or not. It’s not like Jim is alone in making a bad choice, and then lying about that choice.
That’s human nature.
We use what we are given or what we have, to get what we desire. The heart wants what the heart wants, and it’s not always right, or ethical. People cheat, lie, color the facts, and deceive to maintain relationships that are important to them. It’s a fact of human nature, and Passengers absolutely gets it right. A good person, Jim, does something immoral and unethical, because he is, purely and simply, desperate. We can feel compassion for him, even without approving of his choices. Calling him a stalker is snarky, and wrong, and suggesting that Passengers approves of his behavior is a totally incorrect reading.
There’s a powerful scene here wherein Jim nearly attempts suicide. All he has to do is push one red button. The scene is not powerful because of his attempt, but because of what happens next. He catches himself, realizes what he is capable, and grow scared. He flees the airlock, terrified of what he is capable of. He is scared…of himself.
Again, this rings very true, and suggests, once more, that Jim is a fallible, real person not a screenwriter’s cipher.
And what about love? Jim does what he does, he says, because his in love with Aurora.
Love, we all know, is a powerful emotion. And it isn’t always hugs and puppies.
Love is selfish.
Hence crimes of passion.
Love drives people to do things that give them the advantage in a relationship, but which -- from the comfort and distance of our judgment -- we gauge as unethical. The movie makes it plain that Jim falls in love with the (improbably named) Aurora Lane not because of what she looks like; but because of her books; her personality, her spirit.
That doesn’t give him the right to ruin her life, or “steal” her life, as Aurora says, in any way, shape or form. But it’s not just like he stalks her based on her looks, or a desire for sex.
I would argue that Passengers is quite unblinking and truthful about human emotions, and the need for companionship in its first act.
And I would simultaneously argue that it would have been a better movie had it stuck to this idea instead of veering into Hollywood conventions. There would have been a way to do it, to make a statement about human nature.
Passengers should have had the courage to let Jim die in the final act, saving the ship (instead of being rescued by Aurora).
I would have Jim die in the climax, in an act of redemption (proving that he made a terrible choice, a terrible mistake, with Aurora, but is not a bad person, overall). And then, I would have set the epilogue of the film exactly one year later.
In that coda, we would have seen a hibernation pod opening with a man inside. He would wake up, confused and scared. And then he would randomly happen across Aurora, who was already awake.
We would understand from this encounter that she awakened him, as she was awakened by Jim, because she too was impacted by the heavy gravity feelings of loneliness and despair that Jim felt.
She is human too, and -- if Jim died -- she would have had to fight the same feelings, and go through the same decision process that he did.
I doubt she would have decided differently.
Back to Human nature!
Human beings are naturally selfish, in some sense. As reported in Scientific American Mind (Matthew Robinson; 2014): “… instances of selfish behavior also abound in society. One recent study used a version of the classic Prisoner's Dilemma, which can test people's willingness to set aside selfish interests to reach a greater good. After modeling different strategies and outcomes, the researchers found that being selfish was more advantageous than cooperating. The benefit may be short-lived, however.”
If we consider Jim again, we see that he is not a stalker, but that he does make a selfish decision when he is weak.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story of the character. He is also altruistic, and thinks of the community, at times, too. He risks his life, finally, not for Aurora, necessarily, but -- specifically namechecked in the finale -- the 5,000 sleeping beauties in hibernation. Again, this is also human nature. Sometimes we think of ourselves first. But sometimes we are able to rise above that, and think of the well-being of the entire community.
It is natural (and human, too), that Aurora rejects Jim after learning that he manipulated her, and lied to her (on more than one occasion). But to pretend that Jim is just a stalker “on the make” is so untrue to his character in the film. Passengers could have made this point in a superior fashion if Aurora found herself having to make a choice about her future too
Ninety years alone? Or share the misery, and wake up another passenger?
Instead, Passengers settles, at the end, for some uplifting schmaltz about the life Jim and Aurora ultimately share, before dying in transit to Homestead II.
They live a long, fruitful, productive happy life.
I submit that this outcome is unrealistic, given the situation that Jim finds himself in (vented out a tube, blown into space, in a damaged space suit…) and untrue, even more so, to the themes of the movie.
We actually aren’t just passengers, going where life takes us. On the contrary, we are flawed people like Jim, having to make decisions on a moment-by-moment basis, and hoping for the best. The movie is about a man who considers himself and what he wants, first, and then realizes just how wrong he was…and redeems himself.
The truth of human nature would have been validated if Passengers ended with a despondent Aurora, making the very same choice that she punished Jim for.
What would she have realized?
We are social animals. We can’t live alone. And killing ourselves is against our nature too, in many situations.
Consider that, according to Pascal Vrticka at The Huffington Post: “The reasons for the evolution of the human social brain are not yet completely understood. There is, however, growing consensus that two processes likely played key roles in triggering the observed dramatic increase in brain, and particularly neocortex, size. These were the development of (i) socially monogamous pair bonds, and (ii) paternal care / the involvement of the father in rising children (see here for additional information). Both of these processes offered additional defense mechanisms against infanticide and predation on offspring. In a nutshell: if the father stuck around long enough with his partner, and vice versa, the common children had a higher chance of survival…and that is what ultimately counts in evolution: promotion of survival of the fittest.”
In other words, Jim is driven both to be selfish, and to want companionship. His (unethical) action to awaken Aurora is one that stems from both aspects of human nature.
I wager everyone reading this blog would do the same thing in Jim’s situation, and the false outrage over his actions says more about our society’s lack of empathy (and self-awareness) than it does about Jim, himself.
He made a terrible mistake, and came to regret it. Then he tried to make up for it.
I find that Passengers is actually incredibly smart, at least to start, in terms of how it addresses the reality of human nature and Jim’s big choice.
It is just too bad that the movie also makes a bad choice at the very end. Finally, it succumbs to the need to be a commercial “hit,” and becomes a happy-ending romance in which all is forgiven, and which Aurora learns nothing from Jim.
After so much careful set-up and canny insight into what makes us tick, Passengers chooses, finally, to be a stupid romance, instead of a smart science fiction picture.
I, for one, can’t go along on that particular ride.