Passengers isn’t one movie so much as three distinct movies stuck together with narrative duct tape that doesn’t quite cover the seams. One of those films is pretty good; one is uneven but sometimes charming; and one is downright bad, though its badness stems from its failure to adequately address issues raised by the other two.
Directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) from a screenplay by Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange, Prometheus, and the upcoming Mummy reboot), the movie stars not one but both of America’s sweethearts: Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. They are both amusing and pretty, which is about all the movie asks of them.
But attractive and amiable do not a good movie make. That’s especially true of sci-fi, which by its nature explores big existential questions about things like the nature of humans, relationships, and societies. Passengers has all the setup of those questions, but it seems uninterested in exploring them.
To try to understand what Passengers is getting at, and how it fails, let’s separate and dissect the three movies it comprises.
There’s no way to accurately convey the issues Passengers raises without getting into some of the plot’s specifics — so if you want to go in cold, stop now.
Movie 1: Robinson Crusoe, But in Space and With Robots
In a last man on earth/survivalist fable with just a hint of class commentary, Jim Preston (Pratt), a mechanic, wakes up in his pod on the Avalon. The trouble is, nobody else is awake.
The Avalon, in the manner of the Axiom in Pixar’s Wall-E, is more a cruise ship than anything else, carrying 5,000 passengers and crew en route to a new civilization (Earth having become overcrowded and unpleasant). The Avalon is designed to keep its occupants asleep for the first 170-ish years of their journey — they’re in suspended animation — and then wake them up four months before landing on a new settlement, where they’ll have a fresh start. In the final months, they will learn skills, mingle with fellow passengers, and enjoy the Avalon’s comforts, like restaurants, sports, video games, a swimming pool that looks out onto the stars, and the ability to spacewalk while tethered to the ship.
Unfortunately, Jim’s pod malfunctioned, and he woke up 90 years early, which means unless he can somehow get back into hibernation, he’ll spend the rest of his life alone on the ship and die before anyone wakes up.
Increasingly panicked, Jim tries to break into the crew cabin, but he doesn’t have the right security clearance. He’s comfortable enough with his economy-class cabin and basic food choices, and he has someone to talk to — a robot bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen), whose programming is good enough to approximate a real bartender — but the prospect of living out his remaining days trapped alone in a huge, empty shopping mall (in space) drives him to desperate measures.
Much of the pleasure of this first segment of the movie comes from watching Pratt discover the ship’s amenities and explore them; his wonderment when he takes his first spacewalk is affecting, and Pratt’s comedy chops are used to their best effect here.
Then, months into his confinement, unshaven and barely summoning the will to live anymore, Jim realizes that he could wake up someone else. He spots Aurora (Lawrence) in her pod. He grows increasingly obsessed with her, watching her pre-boarding videos. She’s a writer; he reads her work. What if he woke her up and didn’t tell her what happened? What then?
Movie 2: Titanic in Space, Just the Love Story Part, but Creepier and Kind of a Twisted Horror Film
Here be some mild spoilers, if you didn’t know how Jennifer Lawrence got into this movie.
This is where things get complicated: Finally giving in to his loneliness, Jim wakes up Aurora — who happens to share a name with the princess in Sleeping Beauty — and she has basically no choice but to fall in love with him once she realizes the fix they’re in.
And yet he doesn’t tell her why she’s awake, letting her believe that her pod malfunctioned too.
The two fall in love, of course. Jim admittedly makes it easy: He is sweet, incredibly happy to see her, and full of surprises; also he looks exactly like Chris Pratt, so that can’t hurt. They go on sexy solo dates, and they have the run of the Avalon and all its luxuries. Unlike Jim, Aurora is a gold-class passenger, which means she has a very swanky room and gets much better food in the fully automated cafeteria, and Jim benefits.
Unfortunately, all the hours Jim spent pouring out his soul to Arthur stick in the robot’s advanced artificial intelligence. One night, Arthur spills the beans to Aurora about why she’s awake.
Here is where Movie 2 reveals itself to be a horror film. Imagine waking up from suspended animation to discover that you’ll die before reaching your destination, and the only bright spot is someone else who’s in the same tragic predicament, and he likes you, and you like him. Now imagine you discover that the reason your life has been taken from you is that your beloved, for all intents and purposes, chose to take your life from you before you’d even met, in order to fulfill his own needs. Imagine you only discover this after you fall in love with him.
Imagine the tragedy. Imagine the horror. Imagine how afraid you’d be of him, how obviously you’d know you could never trust this person again: You exist as the fulfillment of a fantasy, not a human with feelings and dignity. Imagine all that.
Okay. Now let us proceed to...
Movie 3: Stockholm Syndrome, the Movie (in Space)
The most peculiar thing about Aurora after the revelation is that she doesn’t seem afraid — just angry. Jim actually virtually stalks her around the ship, using the PA system to plead for forgiveness, but to Aurora this is cause for avoidance and anger, not fear.
In its third act, Passengers abruptly abandons its horror film undertones and becomes a disaster film. The ship is malfunctioning, and the corporate overlords who built it didn’t account for that possibility. Help briefly shows up, but it doesn’t last long. There are malfunctions; things fall from the ceiling; there’s an episode with what can only be called “space cancer.” It’s bad.
But this is also where the movie’s own badness solidifies. The romance between Aurora and Jim already knocked out any possibility of exploring the interesting ideas raised in Movie 1, the question of if you woke up in space and knew you’d be alone for the rest of your life, what would you do?
When the possibility of Aurora looms in front of Jim, a new set of moral quandaries presents itself: Is it ethical to effectively take away a stranger’s agency in order to save your own life? If you do it, and then you regret it, what happens?
Aurora and Jim are purposely written as being from very different cultures and classes: Aurora is a writer, the daughter of a famous writer, a “gold class” passenger with all the luxuries and amenities. Jim is a mechanic who bought his passage on the Avalon partly by promising to work for the corporation that operates it — which, by the way, raises another massive set of interesting futuristic ethical quandaries — and yet this disparity is basically ignored entirely by the film. Why bother, exactly?
When Jim’s treachery is revealed, another set of interesting questions is raised: If you discovered you’d been sleeping with the person who in essence took your life from you, what would you do? If he was the only person alive, how would you respond?
The answer Passengers gives reads like a fantasy of Stockholm syndrome, in which the captured eventually identifies and even loves the captor. We are, somehow, supposed to sympathize with Jim, and wish for him to win back Aurora’s heart. The lengths to which the movie goes to ensure that we’ll cheer for this are remarkably manipulative; every time Passengers seems as if it’s about to do something subversive, it falls back on pure, stinky cheese.
Curiously, it’s not till the very end of the film that Passengers acknowledges the fact that it’s not just Aurora and Jim’s lives that are at stake on the Avalon. The pair must, of course, consider the lives of the 5,000 other people hibernating on the ship. But instead, Passengers wants us to believe that what’s really at stake here is a romance between two people, one of whom isn’t all that far from being a prisoner.
What happened here? Who thought this was a clever story instead of a really disturbing wish fulfillment fantasy?
It’s a shame, because Passengers starts out well. Robinson Crusoe in space isn’t a bad idea. Even lonely-guy-wakes-up-girl in space isn’t a terrible notion, if the story has the simple bravery to actually confront the implications, instead of wallpapering over them and hoping nobody will notice. Passengers masquerades as a heartwarming story about the power of love — in space — but it doesn’t have a single fully formed thought rattling around in its glossy, sexy, inadvertently creepy head.
Passengers opens in theaters on December 21.