Peter Fenzel: It’s a bit of a shame that the new Jennifer Lawrence / Chris Pratt movie Passengers got so slammed by critics. It’s not that I disagree with the consensus take on it, but I didn’t see as much engagement with what the movie was saying prior to the collapse at the end as I might have liked.
The end is a huge mess that undermines the rest of what has happened to that point, but through the first and second acts, it’s a pretty interesting movie with some provocative and intense ideas. It balances dark and terrible notions with a sense of fun and an identifiable, resonant humanity.
In the end, the fun ends up inappropriately downplaying how terrible the ideas, but earlier on, it was a spoon full of sugar that made the medicine watchable.
My dear friend Mr. Belinkie, I know you haven’t seen it, but let’s have a spoilery conversation about it. I’ll run down how I saw the movie through the first two acts. And then maybe talk about how it fell apart at the end and the cost of that.
There should be a special sort of spoiler alert for movies this frowned-upon: As in, “if after this discussion, the movie is ruined, we’re not the ones who ruined it.” Consider that warning issued.
The basic premise from the commercials is that this is a romantic but scary movie about falling in love with a stranger. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are colonists on a slower-than-light-speed spaceship heading for a new world. The trip takes over a hundred and twenty years, and so everybody on the ship is put in suspended animation. However, something goes wrong about 30 years in, and Chris and Jen wake up 90 years early. The ship is a sort of automated hotel/resort, so all their needs are provided for, but they face the bleak reality of only having one other person there for the rest of their lives. Against that backdrop, they find love, and each other, and together, they survive.
This is, of course, not what the movie is about. The commercials remain pretty misleading in this regard.
For the first two acts, we instead get an existential rumination on freedom and loneliness in the spirit of Soren Kierkegaard, along with a feminist horror story about consent, emotional abuse and rape culture, with a creation-myth vibe about a future society built on a terrible original sin thrown in for good measure.
A lot of it is about the limits of forgiveness and acting decently and compassionately in extreme situations. Or at least it would be if the ending didn’t entirely sell it out.
Here’s the gist of the movie as I saw it: Chris Pratt is on this colony-bound spaceship, and he’s the only one who wakes up. He has the Home Alone Hero’s Journey: first he’s confused, then he’s happy, and he plays video games and eats sushi every night and drinks whiskey with a robot bartender.
He’s racking up a debt on his charge account he will have to pay later, but it’ll be decades before Earth gets his distress call, decades before any answer reaches him, and he’ll be long dead before anyone else wakes up, so, screw it, right?
But this only lasts so long. He’s alone on the ship (robot bartender notwithstanding) for over a year, and he descends into madness. He walks around naked for months. He grows a huge mountain man beard. He takes spacewalks in a space suit and just stands on the hull of the ship and stares out into the void. At one point he attempts suicide by almost shoving himself out an airlock.
All the while, he reads up on the other passengers. There’s 5,000 of them, and it’s implied he gets to know who most of them are, through text and video records. The movie ends up narrowing this down to a peculiar interest in Jennifer Lawrence in a way that kind of sells his craziness short (presumably to strengthen this notion that he is in love and they are meant to be), but later in the movie he’s able to quote the occupation of random passengers without looking at their readouts.
In short, he busies himself with reading about the other passengers, and eventually he becomes obsessed with Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora. He convinces himself that if they met they would be in love and he would build her a house (it’s a theme throughout the story that automation robs humanity of an essential existential need and comfort by making it so people can’t build and create things themselves).
He decides he wants to wake her up too, but make it look like an accident, and then she will realize when she meets him that they were meant to be together.
This is, of course, all kinds of fucked up. It is the aforementioned abuse: a total disregard for the agency of women, for her life, for consent. Once you wake up you need to go to a special hospital to go back to sleep, and that’s not an option so he’s basically kidnapping her for life to use her sexually.
And, at first, it totally works. Aurora buys the deception, and since Chris Pratt’s character Jim is attractive and charming and the only person there, Aurora eventually falls for him and they fall in love. They have a sexual relationship for a while – at least a few months if not the better part of a year – before the robot bartender “spoils” things by telling her the truth.
And to the movie’s credit, what he has done is treated with appropriate horror. Aurora immediately and categorically rejects him, screams at him, won’t go near him. He tries to “woo” her over the PA system during her morning jogs, but in one of the better sequences in the movie, what’s a cute gesture from him is to her psychological torture – she shrieks and screams at him and hurls appropriate accusations at him of what he has taken from her.
It’s a great illustration of the kinds of discursive double standards that women have to deal with all the time from men who see them as objects of possession, and how wrong and disgusting that kind of behavior is.
It feels a lot like Genesis to me, except it’s Adam who commits the original sin. At first they are together in Eden, but then the truth outs and they are cast out. Even to the point that there is one big, beautiful analog for the Tree of Life that Jim can’t eat or drink from – the Pumpkin Spice Extreme Latte machine, which he can’t access, because he’s not a gold level passenger. When Aurora shows up, she has the gold level access, and they eat of it together, even though he knows he has done something terribly wrong.
So you go from the Kierkegaard scene where Chris Pratt is staring off into the cosmos contemplating his terrible moral freedom, through a world he creates, to the collapse of that world, because you can’t create other people’s lives for them. It’s wrong and terrible.
That’s part of what the title “Passengers” means, by my estimation; it’s a symbol for the existential human condition, where you can’t control your existence, because the universe and your circumstances predate you, but within your ship you can do what you want, except your choices have shared consequences with other people you are traveling with.
Matthew Belinkie: Passengers has not been particularly well-received (32% on Rotten Tomatoes, which puts it behind meh-looking comedies like Office Christmas Party and Why Him?). It seems like the criticism falls into two categories. Firstly, there’s the movie’s gender politics. Chris Pratt is basically a lonely Nice Guy who really feels like he’d be a super great boyfriend for this hot, inaccessible woman. So he messes up her life and lies to her so he can have her… for her own good, he tells himself. You say that the movie does make it clear how messed up this situation is, but it seems like the filmmakers really can’t really condemn him, because they aren’t trying to tell a story about a terrible man and the woman who he manipulates. They want this to be a cute date movie, which means Chris Pratt needs to be likable. So they make him seem like a fun guy, they show how desperately lonely he is, they show how badly he feels about waking her up, and they give him lots of chances to prove his affection and save her life. (I think it’s important that he’s handsome enough and charismatic enough so that we believe she’d go for him, because who wouldn’t? Passengers would be much more interesting if Christ Pratt were still an overweight kind of schlubby guy like he was during his Parks and Rec phase, instead of a dreamboat.) By the end of the movie she’s willing to forgive him, and so should we (says the movie). It seems like a lot of people have a problem with this.
Then there’s criticism of the movie’s quality overall. I’ll leave it to you to say how fair this is, but it does seem to me that this story is a little slight for a two hour feature. It’s only got the two real characters, there’s no antagonist, there isn’t a big mystery to reveal. It seems like a perfect hourlong episode of The Twilight Zone, and they forced a script doctor to add a zero-G swimming scene so they could sell this as a special effects driven action movie instead of an intimate character-driven drama. So Pete, what were your issues with the movie, creepy gender stuff aside? I’ve heard a couple structural things that seem problematic. In the third act there’s apparently a huge problem with the ship, but Chris Pratt just happens to be one of the few people with the technical skills to fix it. Also, if the problem is really mission endangering, shouldn’t he wake up someone above his pay grade and tell them the ship is about to explode or something? They’re not REALLY on their own – they could potentially wake up the whole crew if they wanted to, right? Also, apparently Lawrence Fishburne is another passenger who also randomly comes out of hibernation, and then quickly dies? What the hell is that about?
Fenzel: Ah! So with these questions in mind, which are good questions, as somebody who has seen the movie, let me answer them!
This is a Sony picture, and Sony at this point deserves a reputation for bloating small movies up into hundred million dollar monsters in the hope they become international blockbusters, while at the same time fouling their stories up in production to the point where they make no sense. Their big recent movies as of this writing, other than the unnecessarily controversial Ghostbusters reboot, include a new Underworld movie, yet another Resident Evil movie, and a big-budget relaunch of Tom Hanks as his Da Vinci Code character. This is the studio that made Pixels and lost Spider-Man. We know from their recent extensive e-mail leaks that all is not well, and something feels fundamentally off about the way they are currently positioning and overseeing their movies.
It is pretty clear that Sony wanted Passengers to be a date movie where Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence get together because they like each other. That is not the movie that is on the screen, and that is not the performance the actors give, and the third act’s big problem is it is chopped up and reconstituted to make it look like that’s what was happening all along.
So, to push through this next critical part of the movie summary: Aurora knows Jim has kidnapped her from her desired life, she sees him as a murderer and torturer. One thing I didn’t quite get to is the scene where she goes to his room while he is asleep, punches him in the face a bunch of times, and then attempts to murder him with a shovel. (It may have been a crowbar or other piece of space equipment.)
There is not a scene anywhere in the rest of the movie that I recall where Jennifer Lawrence says that she wants to get back together with Chris Pratt.
However, Sony seems to have hated the movie they have paid for so much that they butchered the ending like that Dr. Moreau episode of South Park where Kyle’s dad turns into a dolphin abomination.
So they cut together sequences that are about other things, perhaps reorder scenes originally shot to appear earlier in the movie, and leave in remnants of some past, completely different third act, that make no sense in context to imply that the two of them get back together because they like each other. But I don’t buy it as an interpretation of the bulk of the movie.
One point that the movie makes and that I think ought to be honored rather than dismissed is that attractive, charming people who consider themselves well-meaning and decent are capable of doing terrible things.
Women do in fact meet charming, good-looking dudes who think of themselves as essentially decent who rape them or otherwise physically or psychologically abuse them. It is not a shortcoming of this movie that the abuser / sexual kidnapper is a man who doesn’t seem like he’d be capable of doing this, and who may not have done it under different circumstances, but people are capable of more than they think they are.
That is a main idea behind the work of Kierkegaard, whose book The Concept of Anxiety is visually referenced throughout the movie.
Belinkie: How is it visually referenced? That seems like a deep cut.
Fenzel: It’s a deep cut, but the symbol has made its way into the general culture, so people reference it in general, not specifically. Kierkegaard is where the concept of a “leap of faith” as popularly understood comes from.
In The Concept of Anxiety Kierkegaard speaks about standing on the edge of a cliff and experiencing anxiety, not just because of the risk of falling off, but because of the freedom to throw yourself off. Standing on the precipice, humans realize just how much freedom they have in the universe, which is terrifying.
Chris Pratt goes through this during the first act of the movie before he wakes up Aurora, where spacewalks out onto the edge of the spaceship and then throws himself off of it (there is an auto-tether that attaches to his suit and reels him in).
Kierkegaard goes on then to discuss how this anxiety is related to original sin with regards to Adam and Eve: Adam did not know that eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil was wrong, he only knew that God said not to do it. In confronting the fruit, Adam experienced deep dread, because he knew that he had the freedom to eat the fruit, even if God had said it was forbidden. In order to have freedom at all, people have freedom to do terrible things, and that’s all presupposed by anxiety.
This is very similar to Jim’s moral arc in Passengers: first, he realizes that his freedoms are not the same as the things people say he can do. Then, he confronts anxiety and takes a symbolic leap showing his moral freedom. After that, while he knows waking up Aurora is wrong, and he dreads doing it (he even has a scene where he looks in the mirror and begs himself not to do it), he does it anyway.
Can a popcorn special effects movie really have this much contemplative philosophical depth of reference? Well, Gravity was less than four years ago and made more than $700 million at the global box office, despite being symbolic out the wazoo (Remember how Alfonso Cuaron later confirmed that Sandra Bullock’s crawling out of the mud scene was indeed a symbolic illustration of the evolution of human life, as I posited on the podcast? That was a proud moment for us.).
Passengers blows a ton of money on zero-gravity special effects, and it even has multiple scenes involving tethers in zero gravity, so there are times when Passengers thinks it is Gravity. It is not Gravity, of course (it lacks the requisite Gravitas), but I think the green light to get philosophical comes at least partly from that association.
By the way, as if Sony doesn’t have enough problems, Passengers ran into a big legal problem with its CGI and motion capture effects that affected a bunch of different movies in production, and we’ll never truly know its full impact. If the live-action Beauty and the Beast ends up looking terrible or like it is missing key scenes they would have wanted to incorporate, it might be because of this ongoing legal drama surrounding DD3/Digital Domain and the rights to the MOVA motion capture technology.
This would put Passengers in the vaunted company of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier among movies that took nosedives in quality after their special effects firms bailed on them, but for which the quality nosedives cannot be specifically attributed.
Anyway, back to the Passengers that everyone says there is, the Passengers that is, and the Passengers that there could have been.
So, in parallel to the Jim and Aurora plot, the audience knows that the ship is having progressively worse technical problems. Jim and Aurora largely disregard them, more worried about their romantic hostage situation, but Lawrence Fishburne does in fact show up to awaken them to this reality.
As you mentioned, the whole movie would make no sense if there were a way to awaken the crew. But the crew is sealed behind an impenetrable blast door (Jim and Aurora each spend a fair amount of time trying to bring it down with everything from sledgehammers to plasma torches, to no avail).
Lawrence Fishburne is one of the lesser crew, and he wakes up and comes out when his pod fails – except it has failed so badly that he has only a day or so left to live before all his organs shut down. At this point, they could wake the crew, but the failures have become so urgent that there isn’t time (this does not explain why they don’t wake them later).
So Morpheus discovers the brutal facts of the situation and relays them to Jim and Aurora – the ship has an elaborate and advanced self-diagnosis and repair protocol, to the point where everything in the ship can be re-purposed to help anything else in the ship. If the ship suffers a truly catastrophic failure, the other systems will step up and keep the place running for a time, but they will eventually also shut down in a progressive “cascade failure.”
The audience has seen the big initial problem at the beginning of the movie – the ship moved through a field of asteroids and took a bunch of serious hits that caused the ship to route all power to its forward shields, which in turn triggered a major power surge and allowed several small rocks to get through and rip holes in various key systems, including the control computer for the ship’s main reactor.
The ship has managed to compensate for this for nigh on two years, but it is reaching accelerating cascade failure (thus the gravity failures and zero-G sequences, including one in which Jennifer Lawrence in a swimsuit is encased in a snow-globe-like ball of floating water, unable to move while being put on display, and nearly drowns). Soon everyone will die.
And this I think introduces some legitimately interesting dramatic situations.
For one, we want to see if Tre’s dad from Boyz ‘N the Hood finds out what Jim did (Jim immediately confesses when the professor from Higher Learning finds signs of foul play in Aurora’s pod). That’s a charged scene.
Aurora wants to see Jim punished for what he did to her. She doesn’t have it in her to revenge-kill him herself, but she appeals to the street-smart chess teacher from Searching for Bobby Fischer under his authority as a crew chief to arrest him for murder and presumably imprison him on the ship.
In a scene that is deceptively rich for interpretation and that shows how great Lawrence Fishburne is as an actor (and I’ll just call the character “Chief Fishburne” from here), he refuses, using the metaphor of a drowning man who pulls down other people as he drowns to at least explain, though not justify, Jim’s act.
- Partly, it seems that Chief Fishburne knows that with the ship on the edge of exploding, they don’t really have time to deal with this situation.
- Partly, Jim is one of only three people on the ship and a mechanic, and is going to be essential to fixing it if fixing it is possible, so Fishburne is going to need to tell Aurora something as an excuse to not arrest him.
- Partly, this fits into the meta-narrative throughout that Aurora is experiencing the reality of women who deal with objectification, manipulation, abuse, and sexual assault that is seen by men as harmless and not taken seriously as a problem. As in – if it were as simple as reporting it to the police, then it wouldn’t still be so big a problem.
- Partly, Chief Fishburne sees the whole situation as terrible and kind of recoils from it – although he does so gracefully. And also he is dying of a huge number of simultaneous organ failures and has his own problems.
Here, I think, we can touch again on the symbolism of the title, Passengers. A person who is “drowning” is generally not on a boat. Thus when Jim was alone, having his existential crisis and attempting suicide, he was not a “passenger.”
But now he is a “passenger,” which means he gets “passage.” Meanwhile, they’re stuck together until the journey is over, as horrible as that is.
Contrary to the claims that the “repair the ship” plot is arbitrary, I do like quite a bit that the condition of the ship is so symbolic of their relationship: they have one big thing that is so wrong that everything else can attempt to compensate for it, but it won’t be enough, and instead it will all fail in a cascade.
Chief Fishburne gives Aurora and Jim his crew authorization to access more of the ship’s systems before dying in a rather silly, abrupt sort of way. This gives them enough capability within the ship to identify the core problem and devise a plan to solve it.
Up until this point, I think we’re still dealing with a “pretty good movie.”
Lawrence Fishburne’s performance seemed odd and was very short, but few people could have walked onscreen at that moment and pulled it off like he did, and it’s good to see him. Also as we’ve established while the movie deals with extreme dread, sadness, and crime against our fellow humans, it is also a funny light-hearted movie with a robot bartender and a Pumpkin Spice Extreme Latte machine (which I should clarify is a general breakfast machine, but the scene where Chris Pratt discovers he can’t order any of the fancy coffee drinks is one of the best moments in the movie, so I felt the need to enshrine it).
And yet, the reactor needs to vent into space and the hatch to vent it is jammed and needs to be opened from the outside of the ship. For Trekkies in the room, this is a very familiar sort of scenario, explored in Star Trek II, Star Trek Into Darkness, and the Bridge Officer Test in Season 7 of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Vague spoilers for things you’ve already seen: whoever goes to open up that hatch is going to die.
Rightly, Jim volunteers to suit up and hatch-hunt. He has to know he is going to die doing it: he has to climb into a tube that will envelop him in a raging flood of superheated plasma and open the door that breaks the dam all over his face.
And while this feels cliche and not particularly worthy of a hundred million dollar movie (it’s in Star Trek Into Darkness, but that’s not high praise), it’s still a reasonable way for this movie to go.
So, Jim goes into the tube, he opens the hatch, Jennifer Lawrence pulls a handle that I’m sure is symbolic in some way but I’m not up to date on my handle symbolism, and everybody is going to be okay.
Except, wait! There’s still a chance to save Jim!
He doesn’t quite die but merely almost dies.
So Jennifer Lawrence runs as fast as she can to the space suits, gets on a space suit, and says something to the effect of “I can’t live without you!” and jumps to go save Jim.
Now, you could take this to mean that Aurora really loves Jim and that venting the plasma has vented the problems in their relationship and they’re ready to get back together.
But Aurora has given no indication that she wants a sexual relationship with Jim at any point recently in the movie.
You could also take it to mean that Aurora realizes that, with Chief Fishburne pushing up Ehrmentrauts by the space-river, if Jim dies, she will be the last person awake on the spaceship, and will thus be totally alone. While she truly hates Jim and wants to see him punished for what he did to her, she can’t tolerate the idea of being that isolated, as it would likely also bring her to madness, suicide, or worse.
Aurora deciding to take that leap to save Jim is a mirror of Jim taking the leap earlier on: Aurora realizes that while the “rule,” the “law,” is for Jim to be punished for basically kidnapping and abusing her, she free to do whatever she wants to do and must face this anxiety without the comfort and certainty of a necessary, essential, or natural justice.
So, you can choose to see Aurora as a Hollywood damsel rewarding her abuser in truly abhorrent fashion,
Or you can see her as an existential figure in a truly horrible situation deciding to show compassion and mercy to her worst enemy in a way that he never showed to her.
And this choice…
Where we don’t know which it is…
Right when Aurora takes the leap…
…Is the last part of the movie that is any good.
Oh, there’s a little treading water. Jim gets taken to the robot doctor and dies on the table. This would be a fine way to end the movie. Jim dies, Aurora is alone, and we cut to Aurora’s room full of pages of a book she’s writing that nobody will read until after she’s dead, then out to the hull of the ship with Aurora staring out into space, contemplating the leap into the void.
Or we see Aurora look at somebody in a suspended animation pod with a look of dread over her face, and we don’t know if she will wake that person up. And it just cuts to credits.
Passengers: a pitch dark, really really bleak movie, but alright.
At this point, the movie is still okay.
But then of course Aurora uses Chief Fishburne’s crew clearance to get the robots to take extreme measures to resuscitate Jim, and of course he wakes up.
And this is where it gets weird/bad.
In Part 2, we’ll talk about the movie’s bizarre ending and how it might have been improved.