Passengers is the new sci-fi blockbuster with a twist but, writes Katie Parker, it’s not as advertised.
There is a pretty classic narrative trope to be found in more or less the majority of movies and it goes like this: A man starts dating a woman, having snared her on the basis of a significant but innocent white lie. They enjoy a conflict-free montage of activities and tastefully obscured nudity before somehow or other the woman finds out that their relationship has been founded on pretence. A brief interlude follows, often accompanied by another montage, before some larger, more important thing happens that draws them back together and sorts the whole mess out.
This is pretty much the plot of Passengers, except instead of an innocent white lie, the man obtains a woman’s literally undivided attention by sentencing her to irreversible and inescapable space doom.
Chris Pratt is Jim, a blue collar chap sleeping snoozily in his hibernation pod on the 120 year or so trip from the now overpopulated earth to Homestead II, a lovely unspoiled planet where humans are setting up colonies. Everything is going well until Jim, 90 years away from his destination, wakes up! Out of his bung pod and unable to go back into hibernation he is doomed to spend the rest of his life on a spaceship. With only robotic bartender Michael Sheen for company and surviving on his lowly economy passenger privileges, he grows a beard and starts to get a little dippy.
One day on a drunken stroll through the hibernation pod room, he notices Aurora (Jennifer “colonialist” Lawrence), a hot blonde sleeping beauty. A bit of obsessive cyber stalking later he decides he’s in love with her, and before long he’s lonely and enamoured enough to make the very huge call of tampering with her hibernation pod and waking her up. Aurora, thinking she was also the victim of a pod glitch, begins a romantic relationship with Jim completely unawares.
“You’ve ruined the twist!” you may be cawing. I shake my head dolefully. To say that this is a twist is to pay undue heed to Passenger’s marketing execs. Contrary to the advertising - which implies this is more of a space mystery, in which two particularly hot people awake in the middle of space and must figure out what dark forces have chosen to doom them - the revelation that Jim is a selfish dick comes in the first third of the movie. The film’s tagline ‘There is a reason they woke up’ also seems to deliberately obscure the real plot of this crazy movie.
Which makes sense. If this had been the advertised premise would anyone have gone to see it? After ten years floating around in pre-production limbo, someone must have noticed there was something a bit iffy about it.
The strangest thing about Passengers is that the premise is not without merit: the concept of being alone in space has repeatedly proved lucrative for Hollywood and occasionally rewarding for viewers and no doubt director Morten Tyldum hoped to elicit similarly adulatory reactions to recent peers The Martian or Gravity. The notion of romantic free will in this setting could also have been interesting to explore.
This is to say that, with different treatment, this plot could have been fine, good even: An intergalactic psycho-sexual thriller; A hellish futuristic Sleeping Beauty; A dark reimagining of Adam and Eve (in space!); if the revelation had been left until the end it could have been a truly messed up, sinister tragedy and a lot more interesting.
Instead, a significant bulk of the runtime is taken up justifying Jim’s horrific choice to imprison Aurora in forever-friendship with him. He was lonely! He was depressed! He was horny! And Aurora: so beautiful and perfect and witty, complete with gold class passenger privileges, does indeed seem to make eternal damnation more pleasant.
Pratt and Lawrence are fine, and do what they can to make a monstrous premise seem vaguely reasonable. Still there is something glassy about their performances, and Tyldum’s determination to keep everything easy breezy gives the experience a strange feeling of detachment.
Passengers takes the lovelorn lying male narrative to its logical extreme, one in which his deceit and paternalistic entitlement and arrogance robs the women of every option available to her. A more self-aware and nuanced production could have used this as an opportunity to reflect on a trope that repeatedly relies on a violation of consent to engineer a romantic arc. Instead, seemingly unknowingly, Passengers replicates another narrative trope: that of the woman held captive. Once the territory of exploitation films, the arc seems to have gained popularity once more and in films like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Pet, and Don’t Breathe we are once more being treated to tales of besotted, delusional men selecting and isolating their mate with nary a thought for her own agency or autonomy.
The difference is that, though they may enjoy it all a little too much, these films identify that this is not a good scenario. A woman doomed to spend her lifetime with a strange man against her will is a horror. Passengers sells it as a love story.