Passengers (2016) was released about four months ago and was marketed as a sci-fi adventure. Upon watching it, I think the marketing was wildly inaccurate; it should have been labeled as a sort of romantic drama kind of thing. It focused much more on human relationships than it did on the fact that the humans were in space. Space seemed to have been a background in this movie for the things going on between characters. In spite of the contradiction, and the really bad Rotten Tomatoes review (31 percent. Folks have gotten rather harsh these days with sci-fi things, no?), I actually enjoyed it. I’m hoping that’s not my mushier, more romantic side talking, but I actually think it has a few strengths, even though there also some obvious weaknesses.
The screenwriter, Jon Spaihts (is that like, the stylish way to spell the name “John” these days? People seem to have done away with the “h”. Apologies, I’m distracting) is also known for Prometheus (2012) and Doctor Strange (2016). I have not seen Doctor Strange yet, but Prometheus left quite the impression on me (that horrifying scene where the female lead does a C-section on herself–the thought still makes me cringe and want to vomit). To me, Prometheus seemed to be a cautionary tale about how not to be an idiot in space. If I remember correctly, I thought all the characters in that movie were incredibly stupid, though I can’t recall why. Though, it does seem as though Spaihts has a pattern of laying human relationships bare against the barrenness of outer space.
What I like about Passengers is that Spaihts seems to tell a prosaic story in an original way. By that, I do not mean that it is a particularly deep story. Two people fall in love. Then they fight. Then they get back together. The typical rom-com. But I like that Spaihts doesn’t try to imply that the story is more than that. (Maybe he does, but that’s all I got from it in its totality). It’s not like Christopher Nolan’s try-hard attempt at being deep in Interstellar. God, could Nolan have gone for lower hanging fruit? “Our memories make time meaningful” or whatever that shit was. I feel like there’s a point at which a movie is great, and Nolan always goes just a smidge beyond that point and ruins a good thing (see Inception).
In terms of cinematography, this spaceship design is definitely in my top 5, but I kind of resent it as well. Whoever designed the interior of this vessel is quite the architect. I loved the very Zaha-Hadid inspired atrium, the wings-resembling-flippers that rotate around this gargantuan energy source (also more elegant than the one in Interstellar, might I add), the curved hallways, the way the control room is located in this sort of gravitated ring thing…It’s a beautiful ship, somewhat like a giant, lovely space fish. I resent it because the vessel, named Avalon (to inspire bourgeois sensitivities), is actually a sort of luxury space cruise in which passengers are supposed have a good old cock-sucking time in their last four months of a 120-year journey (they’re in hypersleep until then). The flaw in this plan is–you guessed it, if you wake up too early, it’s terrifying.
There’s definitely a commentary being made in this film about automated technology and capitalism. I can’t decide personally if it is a technophobic commentary or not. My reason for saying so is that I didn’t object to it, and I usually object to technophobia, though I’m also not the authority on the matter. When Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanic from Colorado, is woken up by a number of meteorites hitting the ship, the recorded, automated responses are so seamless that it actually takes him a while to realize he is not supposed to be awake (that, and the hibernation sickness). He discovers that in addition to being alone 90 years from his destination, his ID card only gives him access to very basic foods, and a very basic cabin, because he purchased a pretty cheap ticket. A year goes by, and in that time, he discovers he cannot enter the command rooms because his ID does not allow him access. He finds out a message to Earth would take 30 years to get there, and it would take 55 years to receive a response. He enjoys everything his miniature paradise has to offer, but he is utterly alone. Thus he wakes up Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), sentencing them both to life on house arrest in a spaceship. Aurora, a writer from New York, has clearly purchased a better ticket, and she promptly treats Jim to all the food he’s been missing out on.
It was at that point that I began to question, why is this construct a familiar one? I’ll explain what I mean. A lot of recent movies about heterosexual couples start off with the masculine protagonist at some sort of disadvantage. In movies that are not about space, we see this to be true in Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Me Before You (2016). In the former, the masculine protagonist is kind of an animal thing, and in the latter, the masculine protagonist is quadriplegic. In Passengers, the masculine protagonist is clearly a social human who is suffering from loneliness and wants company.
Now if we flipped the script, would the movie even have been made? If Belle had actually been the ugly one under a curse, would the prince even look at her, let alone fall in love? If it had been Louisa and not Will who was quadriplegic, would anyone have been sympathetic to her? And if Aurora was the one who was woken up by a meteorite, would people have had sympathy for her for waking up another human on board? Why are stories constructed this way? Why is it assumed that a woman will always give her emotional and physical labor for a man’s well-being, but the same is never expected of men? Why are movies perpetuating this narrative? I felt like it’s a pattern I’ve seen a lot recently, and the role it casts women in viscerally bothers me.
There was symbolism that was done rather nicely, if not somewhat simply, in the film. For example, Jim and Aurora pass by a rather bright, warm star just as they begin to fall in love. In addition, the ship begins to fall apart right after Aurora finds out Jim lied to her about how she woke up. Admittedly, while I don’t mind Jennifer Lawrence, I do think she basically plays herself in this movie, a trait that I think Lawrence suffers from as an actress in general. I think it worked very well in American Hustle (2013), where she plays a neglected New York housewife. Her over-the-top style worked for her in that film. It also worked in Joy (2015), when she was this larger-than-life inventor who cares a lot about her family. In Passengers, I’m not sure that I buy her romantic interest in Pratt’s character. Though, I’m also not sure how to sell romance as the only two people arguably alive on a ship, either.
As far as Chris Pratt’s acting, I actually prefer him in a comedy. His style works better in kicky funny things like Guardians of the Galaxy and Parks and Rec. In this role, he doesn’t particularly stand out. It felt as though he and Lawrence’s character were really friends moreso than romantic partners; whereas I felt like this film called for epic, dramatic romance. Like, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars tier romance. Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. You get my point. They weren’t selling it. It wasn’t hot enough for me.
By far my favorite moment in this film is when Gus (Laurence Fishburn) wakes up, finds out what Jim has done (at that point, Aurora already knows) and gives us one of the most savage scenes of all time. After realizing Jim woke up Aurora, he asks Jim how long he was alone. Jim admits it was a year. At this point, Gus says, “still…damn.”
The man has a point, though. Didn’t Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in The Martian spend something like 5 fucking years alone on Mars before his crew rescued him?? Then again, I guess he wasn’t supposed to be asleep for 120 years on a ship that assured him he would stay asleep. I am a little miffed, though, that the One Black Character dies within days of waking up because of some silly excuse about how his sleep pod was fucked up and left most of his internal organs necrotic. It seemed like he was literally used as a plot device just so the two protagonists could finally have access to the command room and the inner workings of the ship. Do better, directors.
I think the film does a great job of forcing us to contend with the “should be”s and “could have”s. There is a lot in this film about time, especially since the two protagonists are going to be dead before they reach their final destination. It makes for very interesting time references. They frequently say things like “I would have built a house” or “I would have written a book”. In fact, they will never see the generation they leave behind again (because time moves forward 120 years), and the people on the colony planet may be from a different generation (because they took 120 years to get there). The protagonists’ lives become one huge in-between. It really fucks with the social construct of time. Like, what if in the future, there are human beings whose purpose it is to literally just keep a ship running from one end of a galaxy to another? What if that takes longer than a lifetime? What if there are routine tasks like traveling that last longer than a human life?
I wonder if they ever forget that they are on a ship (you learn that they find ways to change the ship to fit their needs). I also wonder what kind of nasty co-dependencies develop between two straight people who know they are alone together.
I did also think it was a little sinister that the planet they are headed to, Homestead II, is referred to as a “colony”. I don’t know if y’all remember when America was a bunch of colonies, but it really didn’t bode well for Native people. I picture this future in which a bunch of rich white people launch themselves off to various planet-colonies. Then they realize how much work it is living in outer space, and they either bribe or kidnap all the poor people of color left on earth to do all the dirty work for them in outer space, just like Americans did to slaves from Africa, Asia, and in the modern world, South America.
In short, this film was kinda weird, and it also kinda worked. Maybe I just have weird taste, who knows. At the end of the day, I think I have always been a sucker for great ideas, even if they aren’t fleshed out so well. I think the idea for Passengers can carry stories even larger and more provocative than this one. I’d be interested to see a writer take on that challenge.