Passengers (2016): Creepy manipulation as a love story

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD…

2016 sure was a year full of unpleasant surprises, huh?

If you recall our December box-office predictions, I along with four of my fellow Agony Booth film reviewers predicted that Passengers would be a box-office hit. Because, why wouldn’t it? All the ingredients that put modern movie audiences’ butts in seats are here: An intriguing high concept premise (a romance set on a huge drifting spaceship where our two lovebirds are the only people awake) directed by the man who helmed an audience favorite at the 87th Oscars, and starring Hollywood’s two hottest movie stars in the lead roles. On paper, Passengers has absolutely everything going in its favor. Every sign, from the cast to the trailers, indicated an obvious crowd-pleasing bullseye.

And then the early reviews came in, and everything went spectacularly downhill.

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Apparently, audiences had been somewhat misled by the film’s marketing. Well, “misled” might be a little bit of an understatement here; more like “taken for a blindfolded ride across a shallow pond and calling it a luxury cruise”. Remember those posters of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt staring emptily into the abyss of your soul, separated by a giant beam of light carrying the ominous tagline “There is a reason they woke up”? Well, that tagline somehow manages to be both a bald-faced lie and more horribly on-point than anyone coming in could have suspected. As it turns out, there is indeed a very good reason one of the two characters woke up; specifically, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, and it’s the film’s treatment of the circumstances and consequences of her awakening that turned critics off. Pretty soon, bad word-of-mouth spread, and audiences that would have otherwise turned out in droves chose to either stay home or go and see Rogue One for the tenth time. As of this writing, Passengers has managed to surpass its $110 million dollar budget with over $237 million at the box office, but there’s no escaping how disappointing those numbers are, especially considering the star power involved.

How did this happen? Was it just a case of bad marketing that made people come in with the wrong expectations, or is the movie really just a poorly conceived, badly written mess? Let’s find out.

Thanks for the booze, Arthur. We’re gonna need it.

The film opens with the starship Avalon gliding majestically through space, set on an auto-piloted course to the far-away colony of Homestead II, with the entire crew and passengers asleep in hibernation pods. While passing through an asteroid field, the ship collides with orbiting rocks, too small to do any (immediately obvious) damage, but enough to cause a malfunction that awakens one of the 5,000 hibernating passengers. Fortunately, that passenger happens to be a mechanical engineer named Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), so we know his skills are going to come in handy at some point later in the film.

Upon awakening, Jim is immediately given a virtual guided tour of the ship courtesy of a holographic instructor (Julee Cerda) who informs him that the 120-year journey is almost complete, and he can now spend the next few months enjoying the Avalon’s many facilities, which include shops, a bar, a movie theater, a luxury restaurant, a swimming pool, and a gaming room. However, as he quickly finds out while exploring the empty vessel, the ship still has 90 years to go before the rest of the passengers and crew are woken up, leaving him completely alone, with no access to restricted quarters and nothing but android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) for company.

At first, Jim decides to make the best of his bad situation by enjoying all the perks by himself, with ritzy meals served by French-accented robots, dancing and fighting games in the gaming room, and spacesuit walks on the ship’s exterior. But after a year, the fun wears off, and the loneliness coupled with the impossibility of going back into hibernation despite his best efforts eventually drive Jim to the point of suicidal depression. It’s then that he notices a beautiful young woman among the sleeping passengers named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), and uses her prerecorded video profile to find out more about her.

After listening to her talk about her job as a journalist, the passion her dad gave her for writing (because of course it had to be her dad), and her desire to write about life on the colonies, Jim soon develops a dangerously unhealthy infatuat—er, I mean, starts falling in love with her and begins agonizing over whether to wake her up too, knowing that he can never put her back to sleep again. After what seems like days of tortured pondering over the morality of his desire and discussing the issue with Arthur, he finally decides to give in and revive her, lying to her by claiming her pod malfunctioned just like his.

C’mon, look at this face! Would he lie to you?

So it looks like we have ourselves the right ingredients for a morally murky survival drama: A man and a woman are forced to live together in circumstances that require mutual trust, with conflict derived from the fact that the audience knows something one character doesn’t (namely, that the guy Aurora is supposed to trust isn’t what he appears to be, and could very well be a predator). Making something interesting out of this setup is tricky, sure, but nothing that can’t be pulled off with a little imagination.

So of course, the movie chooses to make it a big space romance.

Yes, after going through an initial period of denial and depression, Aurora accepts her fate, and the two begin to bond over their different backgrounds and ambitions as Arthur looks on in approval. In no time, they’re going on romantic spacewalks together, having dinner dates at the restaurant, and making sweet passionate PG-13 love in a big expensive-looking bedroom. Another year passes and Jim is about to propose [!] to Aurora when, predictably, Arthur accidentally spills the beans to her about how and why she woke up. This, of course, shocks and horrifies Aurora who instantly rejects Jim and locks herself away from him, refusing any and all contact despite his repeated apologies. This plays out like the kind of typical third-act breakup you normally see in semi-serious romantic comedies, rather than the horror movie situation it must undoubtedly be for Aurora.

But enough emotional drama for now! The plot, such as it, rears its head again when another malfunction occurs and turns off the gravity just when Aurora is having one of her nightly swims, leading to an admittedly impressive scene in which she gets trapped in a floating bubble of water and almost drowns. (Insert your own joke about the 2016 election and the “liberal bubble” here.)

Lady Gaga’s live Esther Williams homage didn’t quite go as planned.

Eventually, gravity is restored, along with unexpected hope, as it turns out this malfunction woke up a senior crew member, Chief Deck Officer Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne). With his help, our protagonists are finally able to access the areas restricted to the crew and discover a series of gradual system failures caused by the same brush with asteroids that woke Jim up two years ago. And as Gus soon discovers, those failures extended to his pod while he was still hibernating, leaving him with only a few hours left to live as his body starts deteriorating. After giving Jim and Aurora his ID badge and a few last bits of exposition, Gus dies proudly wearing his uniform in the ship’s observatory room, staring at the multitude of stars ahead of him.

Using Gus’s ID, Jim and Aurora are able to determine the root of all the ship’s troubles in the reactor’s computer, which an asteroid damaged when it penetrated the hull. As they work to fix the reactor, Jim once again apologizes to Aurora for taking her life away from her, and she admits that she can’t bear the thought of spending the rest of her days alone on the ship. Complications arise when it’s revealed that the ship can’t be fixed unless someone vents a fusion reactor from outside the ship. Because he’s a creepy entitled jerkoff rugged manly hero who has to win back the audience’s sympathy do what a man’s gotta do, Jim goes out in his spacesuit, held to the ship by a tether, and successfully vents the reactor with Aurora’s assistance from inside. In the process, however, his tether snaps and his spacesuit takes heavy damage and he runs out of oxygen. Aurora manages to retrieve his body and get him into the medical bay to resuscitate him, but it looks like our “hero” has ended up atoning for his shitty actions by sacrificing his life for the woman he wronged.

Just kidding! He comes back to life with a witty quip and the two kiss and make up. The film ends with one last attempt at a moral dilemma, as it turns out the AutoDoc in the medical bay can put patients into a state of hibernation, though it needs two people to activate the process, and they’re the only ones still awake on the ship. Will Jim convince Aurora to go back to sleep and condemn him to eternal solitude? Can Aurora live with the prospect of never again seeing the creep who woke her without her consent, seduced her under deceitful circumstances, lied to her, and almost ruined her life?

Because this is a dumb Hollywood movie made by people with a tenuous understanding of human nature, the answer is of course “no”. Fast-forward 88 years, and the passengers and crew all wake up to find their ship overgrown with vegetation from a plant Jim grew in the middle of the main room. As some eagle-eyed viewers may have spotted in the trailers, the captain is indeed played by Andy Garcia for reasons that continue to elude me, as he has no lines and is barely on-screen for two seconds. The movie closes with excerpts from the book Aurora wrote about her life with Jim onboard the Avalon, wishing all future colonists a happy and prosperous life on Homestead II.

“Maybe I should tell Francis I’m having second thoughts about this Godfather in Space thing.”

Truth be told, the problem with Passengers isn’t that its protagonist is a creepy manipulative reprobate who felt his loneliness gave him the right to a woman’s body and her life. The problem is that it tries to acknowledge that and still make him into a straightforward Hollywood hero. This is by far one of the most ill-advised, badly thought-out examples of having one’s cake and eating it too that I’ve ever seen unravel on a big screen; It wants to incorporate Jim’s deception into the drama all while making the audience care about his relationship with Aurora in conventionally romantic terms, and the two ideas are too fundamentally incompatible to produce anything but a prolonged tone-deaf disaster.

It’s one thing to show your protagonist’s darker side by making them perform immoral actions under circumstances that make the reasoning behind them understandable. But neither screenwriter Jon Spaihts nor director Morten Tyldum seem to fully grasp the gravity of what Jim did. To wit: He

  • Read through an unconscious woman’s video profile
  • Interrupted her hibernation with the full knowledge that such an action would be irreversible
  • Lied to her about it, and presented himself as just another innocent passenger
  • Convinced his robot friend to keep her in the dark
  • Used that lie and prior knowledge about her life to gain her trust and build a relationship with her that culminated in sex

and

  • Only let the truth slip out to her afterwards, and only then by accidental miscommunication with his android bartender.

In other words, the deliberately false pretenses under which Aurora granted Jim access to her intimacy make for a convincing argument that our alleged “hero” is a rapist. In a rare case of good acting adding to a film’s problems, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance only ends up solidifying that impression: watch the gut-wrenching succession of shock, horror, anger, hurt, and betrayal in her face as she renders Aurora’s slow-dawning realization of what exactly happened to her, and tell me it doesn’t remind you of someone learning they’ve been the victim of a deep and unspeakable violation.

But wait, it gets worse: As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jim’s idea of making an act of contrition is to broadcast an apology and explanation to her across the entire ship and tell her that she “saved [his] life”, telling her in no uncertain terms that he would have killed himself if he hadn’t decided to take her life in his own hands. This, despite her clearly and unambiguously expressing her desire not to see or talk to him at all. So after lying and manipulating his way into a woman’s bed, our sexy romantic male lead decides the best course of action is to put the onus on his victim by trying to guilt-trip her into forgiving him. Dear Lord, even Harley and Joker’s relationship in Suicide Squad wasn’t as abusive as this one!

Yup, you and me both, Arthur.

Again, this wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself, if Spaihts and Tyldum weren’t systematically embracing Jim’s perspective of the story without any critical thinking. By attempting to admit and correct the wrongness of his actions, the movie only ends up digging itself into an even deeper hole, because the ultimate goal of these narrative decisions is to make Jim more sympathetic by framing him as a nice guy driven to do a bad thing due to a particular set of circumstances. Because he’s our designated hero, his feelings, and therefore his pain, take precedence over Aurora’s. This is further compounded by an absolutely jaw-dropping moment when Gus—whose sole purpose is to provide the protagonists with the necessary tools to solve their problems—rationalizes Jim’s crime to a still-upset Aurora by comparing him to a drowning man trying to pull someone else down with him. Upon hearing that line, I actually found myself audibly mouthing the words “what the fuck is wrong with you?!” in the middle of a packed theater (sorry, fellow moviegoers!).

So what went wrong? A popular theory circulating on social media was that Spaihts’s script, which spent almost a decade on the famed “Black List” of studio execs’ favorite unfilmed screenplays, was originally written as a horror story, in which Jim was clearly portrayed as a man driven insane from isolation. Honestly, having read the script, I don’t buy it; there’s a little more emphasis on Jim’s suicidal despair (as well as pretty leering descriptions of Aurora as some sort of goddess of beauty), but aside from a good many changes in the third act climax, the finished film differs little from Spaihts’s original vision. The sad truth is that the screenplay was faulty from the get-go, and nobody noticed or cared.

These conceptual flaws are made all the more frustrating by the genuinely promising ideas contained within both the story and its visual execution. From the eerie Apple-like corporate sleekness of the ship’s empty corridors and gilded halls, to the slightly-too-pristine bar and android bartender straight out of The Shining, the production design lends itself quite nicely to a suitably darker take on the material. In the hands of a more perceptive director like, say, Paul Verhoeven, the story’s glamorous appeal could have been flipped on its head to reveal a brutal satire of the false idea of heterosexual romance and courtship sold to us by corporate media, reproduced within its own environment with no other frame of reference. Instead, what we get is the genuine article trying to pass itself off as a smart commentary.

Watching Passengers is like watching a beautiful cruise liner engage on a slow collision course with an oil tanker, as the captain plays “My Heart Will Go On” over the PA system. Spectacular though the sight may be, your brain can barely keep up with the sheer amount of incomprehensible decisions being made. All you can do is gape powerlessly at the unfolding disaster, with only the pretty colors and Michael Sheen’s dry comic relief to help you make it through with your sanity intact.

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  • Thomas Stockel

    I honestly thought this movie was going to be a huge hit. I didn’t go see it, but I figured there would be droves of Pratt/Lawrence fans who would.

    It sounds like the people who made the misleading trailers were the same ones who made those for Collateral Beauty.

  • MarshallHuffman

    I really liked the movie despite its flaws, but I have to admit it would have benefitted from a different ending.

    Jim needed to die in the third act while saving the ship, leaving Aurora alone to figure out what to do with herself. Let her be the protagonist for the last third of the movie. If you really want to be twisted about it, show her slowly losing her mind from the isolation and end the film with her waking up another passenger…

    That said, I didn’t find most of the story nearly as creepy as a lot of reviewers did. Both Jim and Aurora’s situations were sympathetic and though it could have been ahndled better it wasn’t an irredeemable creep-fest. Well, aside from the shipwide “apology” broadcast. That was tone-deaf as hell.

  • Olaf_the_Lofty

    Disclaimer: I haven’t watched and will not watch this film. My paper’s review of it did make, in shorter form, the same objection as above: that Chris Pratt is essentially killing Jennifer Lawrence by waking her up prematurely. I would add that the idea the hibernation apparatus needs two people to work it seems to me a highly implausible plot-device: compare “The Cold Equations”, an SF short story I greatly dislike, for another such contrivance. For a thoroughly satisfactory story about people on a decades-long starship voyage being woken prematurely I recommend Cordwainer Smith’s “Think Blue, Count Two” instead.

    • drdvdplayerhandbook

      Quite a bit late for this, sorry, but the truth about that device is that “it needs two people to work it” is the wrong explanation. What happens is that it cannot be activated from inside, only from outside, so of course one of them has to stay behind.

      The real bad plot device is that the damn ship doesn’t have any failsafe procedures in case one of the pods open early. It’s so bad than when Pratt’s character asks the support computer for a solution the only response is that “they can’t fail”. I mean, I understand that they needed a way for the characters not to be able to go back to sleep, but come on!