In Part 1 of this discussion Pete Fenzel discussed the plot of Passengers at length and teased out its ethical issues. In this part we mull over the perplexing ending.
Peter Fenzel: The beginning of the clunky and strange end to Passengers shows us Jim talking to Aurora about the surgery pod she used to revive him. With Chief Fishburne’s access, they can use it to put her into emergency medical stasis, and that way she can go back to sleep and wake up at her destination. This would, it seems, “make it up to her” pretty adequately.
While the movie is rapidly drifting off course, this would still be a fine way to land it without crashing. Jim lives out his days crewing the ship alone; maybe now he at least has access to the bridge and can set up a chair for himself or something. It would be appropriate penance for what he has done.
Instead, there’s a weird montage where Jim and Aurora go on one last date.
And then it cuts 88 years into the future, as the hibernation colony ship reaches its destination, where it is implied retroactively, but never stated, that Aurora decided to stay with Jim, and they lived out their days on the ship and both died. People rightfully complain about this, because it lets Jim entirely off the hook for his possessive decision about Aurora’s life and trivializes not just her character arc up until this point but the real-world circumstances to which it specifically refers: stalkers, date rapists, emotionally abusive relationships, or even just lying in really cruel ways to people who are supposed to be able to trust you.
However, before we fall into the trap of worrying about that bad ending and everything wrong with it, let’s note that we find this through the eyes of – and this is really the most puzzling part of this whole damn movie – ANDY GARCIA.
Andy Garcia, he of When a Man Loves a Woman, he of Oceans 11-13, he of Godfather III, shows up in the final minutes of the movie, as the captain of the ship, with no lines.
He’s fifth billed in the movie. His name is in the special “star credits” before the “real credits for everyone else” roll, and he does not say a word. This brought a hypothetical problem of intent and meaning into the in-the-moment experience of watching the movie for me, and I can’t get over it.
The way the movie ends already makes no sense from a character perspective. There is no credible indication I can remember prior to the scene where Jim is with Aurora at the autodoc that Aurora actually wants to be together with Jim again.
Now we have Andy Garcia coming out of nowhere to take in the evidence they left behind that they in fact did that, except he sees no people. He only sees the wooden house they built on the grand concourse to live in as proof they decided to stay together.
We just get a voice-over from Jennifer Lawrence vaguely describing the feelings around the situation that feels perfunctory and out of character – we don’t even see her face.
Andy Garcia is the smoking gun. He’s not the kind of star you throw in at the end of the movie because a cameo of him would be funny or fun – like Patrick Stewart, William Shatner, or even Zac Effron. This is not the way it should have ended.
If you’ve kept up with the history of this movie (it’s been in development for 10 years, it’s changed potential casts a bunch of times, it was supposed to have Keanu Reeves and Rachel McAdams in it), it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the movie doesn’t end the way it was “supposed” to end.
Andy Garcia’s presence, though, means that you get that information within the context of the movie. Like a funny face made by a cellist in concert, there is a huge difference between a work of art having something unintended in it, and it showing you, for sure, that what you just saw wasn’t intended. The piece cannot be the same.
By the way, everybody plays wrong notes, but never be the cellist that makes that face.
So many reviewers that saw the movie in the end as an expression of Sony’s advertised arc – that this is a date movie about Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence falling in love because they like each other – are to me inappropriately dismissing that the movie tells you while it is going on that its ending is incoherent with what has come before it. I don’t think in the experience of watching it you can just elide that; on some level, you know something is wrong.
It feels like if Jim were telling us what happened later on, this is the part where we would call him out for lying, and he’d go back and tell us what Aurora really did.
I find it hard to accept the ending of Passengers onscreen as the “canon” ending of the movie and feel like the movie (not as intended, but as it exists), is begging us to consider how it ought to end instead, if it changed still further in development to get to its Platonic “final form.”
Here are some ideas for endings. Let me know if you like any of them:
- Captain Garcia is the villain and has been the villain the whole movie. The ship woke up the captain to deal with the crisis, because if anyone is going to lose their whole lives to solitude on a malfunctioning spaceship, it should be the ship’s captain. But he doesn’t want to “go down with the ship,” so he hides, wakes up a random mechanic from among the guests, feeds him the information he needs to fix the ship, and then plans to kill him and steal the autodoc stasis pod. In the end, Jim kills Captain Garcia and gives Aurora the stasis pod.
- All the suspended animation pods are going to fail, so Jim and Aurora, to save everyone’s life, decided to wake everybody up, including Captain Garcia, and in the denouement Jim and Aurora both give big speeches about how you need to find the value in life where you are, and that despite their differences, despite maybe even never wanting to end up with these people, they will find a way to persevere.
- Aurora could have died saving the ship and then Jim would be left alone again to grapple with his guilt. That works with or without Andy Garcia.
- As I mentioned before, Jim could have died and the end could have been Aurora looking at the passenger pods, with it ambiguous if she was going to wake somebody else up.
- Earlier in the movie, the ship “slingshots” around a star: there’s enough bullshit from other movies that uses this device, and we’re already cribbing enough from Star Trek, that you could do this if you really needed a happy ending.
- The ship could have crashed intact on an uninhabitable planet, and then realizing that they were going to be stuck there forever and would never get to Homestead II, they would have to decide whether it was worth it to keep the other passengers in stasis or wake them up, while sending a distress signal, and we could investigate whether waking up these other passengers is the same as Jim waking up Aurora was (hint: yes to him, no for her).
- They also could have accelerated the ship to go faster in order to expand time dilation, so the passengers only experienced, say, 10 years together before getting to Homestead II.
The point is that thinking that we’re forced into really narrow options in considering the end of this movie is a fool’s choice. If we don’t like the way the themes or morals are lining up (or failing to line up), or if we demand a crowd-friendly ending instead of the really dark ending that the first two acts of the movie seem to suggest, there are lots of other options.
Considering the incoherence of the ending as it is and the other possible endings that I mentioned or that you could imagine, I think these are the four big open questions from the first two acts of Passengers, which any good satisfactory needs to address:
- Ought Aurora to revenge-kill Jim?
- If Jim is in peril of certain death, does Aurora have a moral obligation to save him, even though he did terrible things to her? If she isn’t obligated to save him, can she justifiably choose to save him? Why?
- Can or should Aurora forgive Jim and go on with her life separate from him, never talking to him again except occasionally in passing when it’s really awkward? Would it be good or bad for her own agency and well-being to do this?
- Ought Aurora to forgive Jim and get back in a sexual relationship with him, getting space-married and having babies, in the way that Sony seems to want you to think they do, even though they didn’t put footage of it in the movie for some reason?
I think the way you answer those questions could lead to any number of endings for the movie, but that if you’re not considering those questions, you’re not ready to bring this movie in for a landing.
To shift focus, Matt, in Part 1, you asked if this whole exercise of making a $100 million action spectacular out of this script is justified. As I mentioned then, if you squint and leave out a lot of details, the project isn’t that different from Gravity, and that made a lot of money, so maybe.
But once you see what they actually have in mind, no. No, it isn’t. The movie should have cost $40 million tops, and if it was going to exist, it should have been a vanity project the director gets in exchange for a huge box office success, like how Shane Black got to make The Nice Guys after Iron Man 3 made more than a billion dollars. One of the biggest underlying problems with this movie is its commercial ambition – paradoxically, I think it had a better chance of being a commercial success (which was still not going to be great) if it had backed off of the mandate, expectations and cost that accompany a blockbuster. It could have been bigger by being smaller.
Going deeper I think you’re right that a movie is the wrong format for this story. There isn’t enough room in the world for the right amount of plot, and it relies too much on melodramatic personal angst – angst that clearly is not getting across because few reviewers seem to be picking up on it as important to the movie. I could see it as a limited run miniseries, perhaps, if you scaled up the world a bit.
But I’d instead suggest a different approach: Passengers should be made into a Broadway musical:
- The cast size is right: four to five major actors, plus as many or few robots in chorus as you like.
- You’d have ample opportunity to explore everybody’s feelings.
- You could spend time on the complexities of the sexual morality in a setting where people are more willing to entertain the good intentions of storytellers.
- The audience would be more willing to accept a straight-up tragic ending.
- You could add a song about how great Andy Garcia is.
Oh, and you could do impressive gravity-defying special effects without a legal injunction involving fraudulent corporate transfers of VFX technology between multiple Chinese holding companies. That would probably be a bonus.
But I’d still change the ending. To what remains to be seen.
Matthew Belinkie: I have to be honest – from the way you describe it, it sounds a lot more nuanced and interesting than I expected. Let’s talk about that ending that you feel ruins the movie, because at first glance it doesn’t seem so problematic to me. You seem to feel that Jennifer Laurence’s character has no business ever forgiving, much less liking Chris Pratt ever again, and an ending that shows (okay, implies) them living happily ever after has no emotional truth. But Laurence Fishburne’s drowning metaphor is kind of compelling to me. Yes, Chris Pratt did a bad thing, but he did it after a year of going crazy, and he subsequently turns out to be a pretty great dude. And I like the moment you describe where Jennifer Laurence suddenly realizes SHE might have to live alone on the ship and how much that would suck. Maybe in that moment where it seems like Chris Pratt is a goner, she gains a certain empathy and a willingness to forgive something that, under normal circumstances, would be unforgivable.
One thing that’s fun to consider is that the medical stasis pod is always there, every day of their lives together. She has the opportunity and the moral right to bail. I’m imagining them having fights throughout the years where she’s like, “I swear Chris Pratt, if you don’t start putting your dirty laundry in the hamper I am SO PUTTING MYSELF INTO STASIS UNTIL YOU DIE.”
Perhaps one of the things that bothers some people about this movie is that the metaphor and the actual scenario are slightly out of sync. Science fiction is often used to metaphorically explore real contemporary issues, right? (One of my favorites: the Bruce Willis movie Surrogates, where everyone lives through robots and never leaves their rooms. Bruce Willis’ surrogate has a luxurious head of hair. (The movie is about the internet, I’m pretty sure.)) Now metaphorically, what Chris Pratt does to Jennifer Laurence is kidnapping and rape. The fact that he was lonely is no excuse in the metaphor. But in the actual movie, where he’s literally isolated from all human contact for a year, it kind of DOES feel like an excuse. The situation is so extreme that you can say, “Well, anyone might have snapped under those conditions.” Whereas in the metaphor, there is no amount of loneliness that justifies manipulating a woman like that, so you wind up with a story that reads as an apologia for terrible Nice Guy behavior.
I want to get at what feels wrong about the ending to you. Is it Jennifer Laurence’s choice to stay with the guy who ruined her life, or the way they choose to reveal it via the coda with Andy Garcia? If it had been an actor other than Andy Garcia, would your feelings about the movie be totally different?
Fenzel: To answer your last question first, I think there are plenty of disaster movies where a random bystanders are shown after the disaster is over to show that everything is okay. In particular I’m thinking about the movie Volcano, which goes to the trouble of showing the people of Los Angeles covered in volcanic ash after the volcano crisis is over, suggesting they can’t see the color of each other’s skin anymore and thus will gain new perspective on their future conflicts among themselves.
If the random construction worker covered in ash at the end of Volcano was just Wesley Snipes with no warning, it would really throw me off.
Another thing that’s wrong with the ending is we don’t see the choice. We don’t get a big final speech from Chris Pratt putting it all on the line, and we especially don’t get a big moment from Jennifer Lawrence where she makes such a grave decision. And if we were going to skip that decision, I’d expect a transition that frames when it happened – or even a gesture, like shutting off the autodoc. I’d expect there to be a clear beat where it lands that she’s made that decision. That beat is missing from the movie. While I was watching the date scene near the end, I was wondering “Did she decide to have one last night hanging out with him before leaving him, as an act of kindness and a farewell?” To me that question sat unanswered, I never got a clear moment of payoff for it, and when Andy Garcia showed up I questioned the meaning of what I’d been watching even further.
The other notable thing holding back a moment of payoff is we never see any kids. If Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt decided to live their lives out together as a couple in a wooden shack they built on the concourse of a spaceship, growing their own food from plants they found in the colonization module, they would probably have kids who would still be alive when Andy Garcia came out of hibernation – little Horatios to tell the story.
But all we see is a wide-angle shot of the shack. There’s no sign of kids, but there’s also no clear sign that there’s not kids. There’s no sign of a note left behind, or if they died, or where. It’s all implied. All we get is the voiceover. It feels a lot like the ending of Terminator 2, except it’s the road narration with a picture of a happy playground with no kids on it. It isn’t clear what it’s trying to say.
I’d also be fine with it if they used birth control, but this is never mentioned in the movie even in passing. A condom joke could have easily fit into the movie, but it’s not there for a variety of obvious and less obvious reasons, no doubt. I don’t think Jennifer Lawrence even has to deal with tampons. Presumably the autodoc is qualified to handle a whole bunch of different diseases, but the people on the ship are only supposed to be awake for four months, the way it’s built (as a sort of triage coffin) it doesn’t seem equipped for long-term OBGYN duties including prenatal care, childbirth and dealing with babies. Although that’s pretty easy disbelief to suspend if the movie just spent a beat addressing it.
(And as it turns out, a movie like Passengers having no consideration for the questions and challenges of reproduction is very much not the way it was originally written.)
So if there was some momentous decision with huge consequences in a movie that has been pretty up-front about its intense emotional moments up until this point, I’d expect there to be a beat to appreciate it and let it sink in.
To go back to your other question: Whether the intensity of Jim’s suffering is so great that it does justify his behavior, making this a Nice Guy apologia, I tend to think that the main issues with “Nice Guy” behavior and the “Friendzone,” frequent topics of argument, are ones of perspective.
The tensions around these heated moments would be much easier to understand and resolve culturally if we all accepted that what you think about yourself does not have to be the same thing that other people think of you.
I think Passengers gets to this wisdom in the jogging scene, when Aurora tells Jim that she does not care how lonely he was. I don’t think we need to come to a consensus that involves Jim, Aurora and the audience on our thoughts on the situation, everybody is likely to think differently about it, depending on context, even if nobody outright condones what happened.
Let’s say we take it out of the context of Passengers and put it in a different movie. Let’s say The Hunger Games.
Let’s say in The Hunger Games that at one point while under the influence of tracker jacker venom (the futuristic bees that Donald Sutherland has used to brainwash him – don’t worry, if you haven’t seen The Hunger Games I’m not spoiling anything good), Peetah sexually assaulted Katniss. Stuff sort of like this does happen, but let’s make it this hypothetical situation.
Peetah maybe eventually comes to terms with it. He likely feels bad about it. Maybe really bad. Maybe he cries and apologizes a lot. But whatever happens he has to keep living with himself, that being tortured and brainwashed means this isn’t really his fault.
Gale, the third party, and us, the audience, also maybe eventually come to terms with it. There’s a war on, Peetah wasn’t himself, he shouldn’t be blamed that harshly even though he did a truly terrible thing, especially if he apologized, showed genuine remorse, and attempted to make amends.
But does Katniss come to terms with it? To the point where she’s comfortable sleeping with Peetah again like it never happened?
She may say she forgives Peetah. She may even stay with him and sleep with him again if she’s forced to by circumstances. She may downplay it to other people because she doesn’t trust them or want them to get involved, because they would not help her anyway. She may even prefer it all just go away. She may be focused on helping the war effort. She may have any number of reasons to make do and keep on keeping on, but because it happened to her, she’s going to have very different feelings about it than anyone else has.
As the person who experienced the thing itself, she is under no obligation to come to the same conclusion as the consensus does. We have different perspectives.
The Hunger Games is full of events like this: betrayals from people who are supposed to care for Katniss, losses that are impossible to truly justify, events that traumatize Katniss and damage her capacity for trust, love and friendship.
And you know Katniss never does? She never does anything afterward as if what came before never happened.
She’s miserable and it all hurts. Yeah, she makes do because she’s got to keep living her life, but Katniss doesn’t really just shake off any of the things any of the men and women in her life to do her, even if ultimately the ending seems like a success to us.
Breaking trust in the context of an intimate relationship, especially an intimate, sexually and personally committed relationship is especially damaging. It gets especially hard to restore the intimacy and trust the relationship was predicated on in the first place.
A big part of why Aurora seemed to like Jim is that they were in the same situation — she could understand how he felt, and she thought he could understand how she felt.
Chief Fishburne coming to terms with what Jim did. Jim regrets deeply what he did and feels terrible about it, but that’s not the same as the pain Aurora feels about it.
The upshot from all this is that sure, what Jim did is excusable. It can be forgiven. It can be understood.
And if you put Aurora in the same situation, she might even do the same thing. But even if she figures that out on an intellectual level, that doesn’t mean she will be able to resume her relationship with Jim as if he didn’t betray her and hurt her.
Asking the person who suffered for it not just to forgive the guy who did it, but to sleep with him, and to sleep with him for the rest of her life, picking up right where she left off, I think feels kind of crazy and separate from credibility and experience.
Maybe if Aurora were more codependent – if she seemed more cowed by the abuse (and by abuse here I mean constant and ongoing lying about her reality), if she had learned more helplessness from her virtual captivity, she would be more like Katniss and just do what she feels she has to do, even if she hated it. But Aurora isn’t nearly that jaded at any point in Passengers. She seems to have a very clear head, to be quite independent, and as a writer she may even react to the solitude differently from Jim.
I thought that maybe it would be a better ending if they came to an arrangement that, out of kindness, Aurora would wake up for one night every year, and she would talk to Jim and see how he is and go to the bar with him. But I can see how medically that might not work, even though none of this is real, and you could change the rules of reality to serve the story easily enough.
Also at some point decades before they get to Homestead II (the planet they are going to), Jim’s laser relay distress call to Earth is going to get a response, and at that point the questions all change, as somebody will be able to transmit to him, maybe even assist him with his moral quandaries. But we don’t hear about that either.
There are a lot of things the movie could have clarified to fill this nebulous, unbalanced, Andy Garcia moment of confusion.
Maybe, just maybe, it would have been different if Jim had told Aurora he had woken her up as soon as she woke up, rather than get in a whole extended sexual and personal relationship with her for about a year before she found out from a robot. Because then at least even though he had hurt her badly he never would have betrayed her trust. I can see that as being terrible, but more forgivable.
But yeah, regarding the “Nice Guy Apologia,” I see these outcomes with increasing levels of skepticism as to how plausible and grounded they feel:
- Aurora does not forgive Jim, and she gets in the pod.
- Aurora forgives Jim, but she still gets in the pod.
- Aurora forgives Jim, and she makes some sort of temporary arrangement to stay out of the pod for a while to be kind to him or keep him company, or to wake up and visit him occasionally, but then goes in the pod.
- Aurora forgives Jim, but she is not willing to be responsible for leaving Jim alone, so she stays out of the pod for the rest of her life, but their relationship is never the same.
- Aurora forgives Jim, and she also falls in love with him again, and they get together again right away, and they have lots of sex, and they have kids that meet Andy Garcia.
- Aurora forgives Jim, and she also falls in love with him again, and they get together again right away, and they have lots of sex, but the rhythm method works, they don’t have any kids and Andy Garcia remains unmet.
There are vast jumps in increasing skepticism between each of these.
The short of it, though, is that if somebody does something to you, then the mitigating factors and broader considerations around the act are going to matter to you differently than they matter to everyone else. It’s why we don’t let victims oversee trials; you’d see a lot of executions for stolen parking spaces.
Belinkie: The script to Passengers has been kicking around for about 10 years now, and the original ending was indeed different. But I’m not sure it sounds like it would be better. First off all, everyone in hibernation dies when the pods are ejected into space (why do we even have that lever??). That leads Jennifer Laurence to muse that if Chris Pratt hadn’t woken her, she’d be dead, and apparently this makes her less mad at him. This sounds like incredibly dumb logic. “Hey, if I had done this horrible thing to you, then you would have had an even more thing happen to you. So I’m a hero! You’re welcome!” No, it doesn’t work like that.
Then we get an ending 90 years in the future, when the spaceship lands on Homestead II. The doors open and tons of kids and grown ups rush out. It’s implied that Jenn and Chris used genetic material housed on the ship to repopulate everyone who got ejected into space.
This ending neatly sidesteps the issue of whether Jenn forgives Chris. Because everyone is dead and they have a duty to spend their lives raising vat-grown rug rats, it doesn’t really matter if they WANT to be together. They are basically given a mission, and we never find out whether they became lovers or just worked together out of a sense of duty. That’s very different than in the Passengers you saw, where there’s nothing to accomplish on the voyage and the only reason Jenn would stay out of hibernation is to make Chris or herself happy.
Would this ending address your concerns? It doesn’t seem like an improvement to me. Jennifer Laurence basically forgiving Chris Pratt for waking her because it just so happened to work out for the best, in a way he could have in no way predicted, sounds infuriating.
Fenzel: Agreed. Wow. The original ending seems way worse, because it says her role of being a potential mother is more important than her personal agency. Even if you believe in motherhood that much, that doesn’t seem emotionally grounded for Aurora’s character at all. Aurora is not Linda Hamilton from Terminator 2; again perhaps because she is not nearly so jaded by the bleakness of her condition as she is defiantly angry at Jim for causing it.
This is, by the way, what a poker player would refer to as “being results oriented,” and it’s not how things ought to work. If Aurora goes all in with pocket jacks and has her opponent on garbage, and the opponent sacks out and hits trips sixes on the river, Aurora shouldn’t say “Welp, I guess I was wrong to ever think my hand was good.” If you get your money on the table with the best hand and you lose, that doesn’t mean you made the wrong decision.
Every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser, and the best you can hope for is to be jettisoned out of the airlock while in suspended animation, I guess.
In other words, if somebody burns your house down, so you move to a new city, and then your old city is destroyed by a comet impact, it doesn’t mean the arsonist did you a favor, and while I guess I believe somebody might come to the conclusion that the arsonist did them a favor, what story does that tell?
To me, that story sounds like a story of Aurora misled into a sexual relationship by emotionally confusing circumstances, not a story Jim’s redemption.
That ending does sound like it work work a bit better in the aforementioned Keanu Reeves / Rachel McAdams version, since the two of them bring a distance and sadness even to their buoyant moments that make me think that maybe that Aurora does ride that Linda Hamilton fight-robots / make babies train.
Still it doesn’t vibe with the consequence-free dating and the video game dancing scenes as they stand at all, and it makes it rather irrelevant how attractive the leads are to each other and to us, which is a big part of the tension this movie is setting up. Make this movie with people who are doing sex-for-procreation, even metaphorically, as opposed to sex-for-awesome, and it’s a very different movie. You’d have to change a lot upstream and the tone and themes throughout.
And it’s totally not the cute date movie Sony thinks it is making, and it’s not the personal existential movie that Passengers is now. Tonally next to the rest of this movie, that ending would be a disaster, even worse than the one they have now. I can see why they changed it.
I also read a bit more about the original Andy Garcia ending — the one they had been working on, rather than the one suggested within the movie itself. Previously there was more of an extended denouement about Jim and Aurora’s life together, that it wasn’t decided all in one moment, and that this was all told to us through the eyes of an Andy Garcia with lines. I can also see why they changed that; extending the movie that much more could create real pacing problems. Although maybe there’s a resolution in that idea that would get us to a “better, smaller” Passengers that has even more intimacy and less time with the CGI effects scenes. Although that seems unlikely given the direction of modern commercial cinema, let alone Sony.
I guess I’ll say it’s been surprising to learn that this movie never had a satisfactory ending, and that we can reasonably guess that the moral questions posed by the first two acts of the movie remained inadequately challenged, let alone answered, in any version of the film.
That ends up being to Sony’s credit, I suppose, as my sense watching the movie was that it was good at some point, but Sony ruined it in an attempt to make it more blockbuster-friendly. Maybe they didn’t ruin it so much as fall short of transforming it into what it might be. Or maybe it always had problems in its bones and was never going to be fully realized, despite its long stay on the legendary Black List of most-liked unproduced screenplays.
And to wrap it up, I’d like to give more credit to Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, who it seems maybe caused a lot of the trouble themselved by creating characters that to me seemed so vivid and a relationship that at times seemed so plausible and grounded that something more meaningful would have to have happened to them.
I would have liked to have seen the movie step up and give these two performers a suitably difficult, intense, elegant, beautiful ending. Because I want a whole movie from these two, and given the performance of Passengers now I’m not sure I’m ever going to see it.
But who knows? We did never get to see specifically what movies Jim watched in the starship Avalon’s movie theater. Maybe he saw an old-timey Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence movie that captured the fun and vitality of these two charmers, in a situation that demands, and, in the end, produces, sublime moral choices that we can identify with, learn from, and discuss at length (boy oh boy, at what length) for many years to come.