Passengers begins with a disturbing and thought-provoking premise: what acts of desperation can a man commit faced with a lifetime of soul-crushing loneliness? The starship Avalon careens through the frightening vacuum of space headed towards a planet called Homestead II. 5,000 passengers signed up for the 120-year journey, brave colonists searching for a new life. They are all in stasis, naturally, leaving the ship to pilot itself for the century. The ship’s not great at this, however. As the Avalon plows through an asteroid field, one of the little buggers slips through the shield and hits a specific part of the ship causing one of the hibernation pods to fail.
The hibernation pod belongs to Jim Preston, played by Chris Pratt. Wandering through the ship, wondering where everyone is, he quickly discovers that there are still 90 years left on the commute. He combs the ship’s computer for information, and tries everything he can to re-activate his pod, but the truth slowly becomes clear: he’s alone, and will be for the rest of his life.
After about a year, Jim is frazzled and a bit barmy. He’s at the brink of suicide. Despairing, longing for any human contact, he begins watching all the videos and reading all the writing of one specific passenger—Aurora, played by Jennifer Lawrence. He’s as infatuated as someone can possibly be with someone they’ve never met. Though he knows it’s unfair, and wrong, and the thought sickens him a little, he seriously considers deactivating her pod.
Which, in a piteous act of desperation, he does. Aurora wakes up, and Jim pretends it’s an accident. She goes through a lot of the same emotions that Jim did: hopelessness as she realises there’s no way to re-hibernate, dread at the prospect of living a whole life and dying on an empty ship. Eventually she calms the fuck down and decides to make the best of a bad situation. But Jim’s secret hangs over their relationship, and the closer they become the harder it is to keep.
Passengers is best when observing human behaviour and exploring philosophical conundrums. I mean, what would you do in this situation? Commit suicide? There are plenty of critics quick to judge Pratt’s actions, alternately calling him a stalker, a murderer, or something even more incendiary. He is, rather obviously I thought, none of those things. He is a sad, lonely man, who becomes so anguished he cannot think clearly. It’s quite apparent, even while he’s actually waking Aurora up, that he doesn’t want to be doing this. It’s all in Pratt’s face.
Anyone who’s done even a cursory study of how solitary confinement affects the human brain not only finds this act unsurprising, but empathises with it. Of course I’d like to think I’d be above doing something so clearly unfair and cruel. Then again, I’ve never been without all human contact for a year and a half. Sanity is more tenuous than any of us would like to admit. But I can see quite clearly why some critics would feel the need to condemn Pratt’s actions without thinking about them too deeply. If you’re going for gold at the Woke Olympics, it’s helpful to see such things as ‘problematic’ by default.
Yet, Passengers commits two sins which prevent me from giving a whole-hearted recommendation: a small one and a big one. Both can be explained by the fact that the characters are in a Big-budget Hollywood Tentpole Afraid to Take Chances. The small sin is the first act: it could be longer. If director Morten Tyldum had gone more deeply into Pratt’s time on the ship alone, his desperation may have struck viewers more clearly. (But then, you’d run the risk of boring a mainstream audience, I suppose.) The big sin has to do with the film’s ending, which I discuss in the following Spoiler Space.
Do not read the grey paragraphs until you have seen the film!!
Spoilers for the Ending of Passengers.
The film shoots itself in the foot thematically by having Aurora choose to stay with Jim into old age, alone together on the ship. It would have been a stronger choice to have her climb into the infirmary pod at the end, while Jim turns it on and must spend the rest of his life all alone. He would finally accept the gravity of his actions.
Actually, the best ending would have been for Jim to perish once Aurora vents the heat from the reactor. Then, show her all alone for a year or two (or three) on the station. Have the film end with her making the decision to wake someone up! That would have been exceptionally powerful, and all this negative political posturing against Passengers would cease to exist.
But the ending we have is the ending we have. Here I must say that Aurora is a complex, intelligent woman fully capable of her own decision making. It is not fair to criticise her just because you may not have made the same decision. I’ve heard a lot of talk of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ surrounding the final plot development, but this is absurd. Aurora is the sanest character in the whole film.
In the end, Passengers ends up being a mostly entertaining film with two appealing leads. (Yes, Chris Pratt is agreeable in this movie. Wipe Jurassic World from your mind.) It makes some bone-headed concessions in an attempt to appeal to a wide audience, but is smarter than your average blockbuster. Not too much smarter, but I’ll take what I can get from a non-franchise film.