Passengers Is A Profoundly Uncomfortable Experience
Directed by: Morten Tyldum Starring: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen Running Time: 116 mins
Passengers is not the nice romantic sci-fi film you’ve been led to believe. What’s disconcerting is that it thinks it is. Thanks to a horribly misguided plot development in the first act of the movie Passengers is a film so far from what it wants to be that it’s staggering to imagine how anyone involved thought it was a good idea. Not only is this plot development completely unnecessary, it unintentionally transforms the whole thing into a profoundly uncomfortable experience.
Fair warning to all here, it’s going to be kind of impossible to discuss the film’s issues without stating what this plot development entails, so rather than continuing to talk in circles, let it be known there are spoilers ahead!
Ok, so you know how the trailer for this film makes out that two of Hollywood’s most charming actors, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, both accidentally wake up from stasis in the middle of an interstellar voyage and fall hopelessly in love while trying to save their ship from certain doom? Well that’s not exactly how it plays out…
It turns out Pratt is the only one who is accidentally woken from his slumber. We spend the majority of the film’s first half-hour with his character, Jim Preston, as he comes to terms with being the only person awake on this vessel. With no means of contacting earth and no hope of putting himself back in to stasis Jim is trapped on board for the next 90 years. He will die there, alone. His only company being a robot bartender played with wry charm by Michael Sheen.
During this relatively promising first act Jim goes through various stages of acceptance and denial; trying to remedy his situation and finding ways to amuse himself onboard, before ultimately becoming dishevelled, downtrodden and lounging around in various states of undress.
It is at this point, after a year of loneliness, that Jim becomes obsessed with a beautiful young woman he happens to stumble upon, sleeping happily in her stasis pod. This woman is Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), and “obsessed” is putting it lightly. Jim sits by her pod doing some good old virtual stalking – watching her pre-flight interviews, reading up on her life, and staring longingly at her through the glass. And so, in case you haven’t guessed where this is headed, he gets himself looking all nice and presentable and prepares to wake her.
Don’t worry though, he’s not going to tell her he woke her up against her will – he’s just going to lie and pretend like it was all a happy accident – dooming this girl to a life spent keeping him company against her will until they die alone in the vastness of space.
Now obviously Jim is hoping she’ll wake up and fall madly in love with him, thereby not caring about the horrible fate he has imposed on her. Clearly those involved in making the film think so little of their doe-eyed audience they assumed we wouldn’t care either. Anyone with half a conscience will instinctively know that Jim’s decision is completely and utterly wrong. Not to mention creepy as hell. Aurora is his unwitting captive. Ignoring this truth in favour of cheap romance is inconceivable. But that’s exactly what Passengers does, and the film never recovers.
Why this complication was even necessary is unclear. All of the resulting creepiness could have been avoided if the two characters had simply both woken up at the same time – victims of the same unfortunate malfunction. One small but crucial adjustment to the plot and the film would have been fine – run of the mill, but fine – the harmless piece of feel-good romantic adventure fluff it was trying so hard to be.
As science-fiction lite Passengers is filled with some nice touches – the set design is cool, the zero-gravity swimming pool sequence and the effects in general look great – plenty of attention has been paid to the physics and logistics of interstellar travel. It’s just a pity the same attention wasn’t applied to the moral implications of the story and its characters.
It would be another matter entirely if the aim of the film had been to explore the ramifications of Jim’s decision. A space-bound psychological thriller perhaps – one that flips the story after the reveal to put us firmly on Aurora’s side – examining the tragic nature of what people can do when pushed to their limits by loneliness and despair. This is 100% not that kind of film.
Passengers has no interest in punishing Pratt’s character or painting him in any kind of negative light. It barely acknowledges the implication of his actions past a couple of throwaway lines. When Aurora inevitably does find out what Jim did it proves to be little more than a minor inconvenience in their path towards happiness.
Repeated attempts to paint Jim’s character flaws as endearing only make the films ultimate message all the more disturbing. In one sequence he attempts to win Aurora back – stalking her via the ships CCTV and pleading with her over the intercom. The reality of that situation is clearly terrifying. She can’t escape him. But the film still expects us to feel bad for Jim and root for the pair of them to get back together – “Why can’t Aurora just go along with it you guys?!”
To give credit where credit is due, Lawrence seems to be the only person involved in making this film who has any idea how violated and trapped her character must feel. Her reaction upon finding out she has been manipulated and lied to by the man she grew to trust, both physically and emotionally, is exactly the right mix of shock, disgust, outrage and pure terror that you would expect someone in this situation to display. Lawrence plays this reaction as much as she can within the confines of the script. This amounts to a few brief scenes where she avoids Pratt’s character before the two are inevitably thrown together by the demands of the plot.
The ship is falling apart. With their lives, and the lives of the 5000 sleeping passengers at stake, these two adorable “star-crossed lovers” must put aside their differences to save the lives of everyone on board. Can Aurora possibly find forgiveness in her heart and grow to love her charming captor? You betcha! Unfortunately the film makers don’t seem to realize there’s a term for this… It’s called Stockholm Syndrome, and it’s not usually known for it’s heartfelt romantic properties.
Passengers is out now in Irish cinemas(1.5 / 5)