Editor’s note: Spoiler Alert: This review discusses first-act developments purposely left out of the marketing and advertising campaign by the film’s producers.
In space no one can hear you scream, but in Passengers, the latest big-budget space romance to grace multiplexes this holiday weekend, no one can hear you scream because you’re either in hibernation and thus in deep REM sleep or awake, wandering the corridors of a massive, fully automated spaceship, alone with only a robot bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen), for company. He might hear you scream, but he won’t care, instead offering you banal conversation and all the alcohol your liver can absorb. So what’s a mechanic, Jim Preston (Christ Pratt), to do when his hibernation pod malfunctions 30 years into a 120-year journey to a new, off-world colony, Homestead II (owned and operated by the for-profit Homestead Company)? What any able-bodied, hormonally charged, non-suicidal man would do apparently: After spying a beautiful young woman, Aurora “Sleeping Beauty” Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer with a famous, Hemingway-inspired father and modest talents, through the clear-glass window of her hibernation pod, Preston decides to awaken her from suspended animation, dooming her to die before she reaches the promised land.
Forcing Preston and Aurora to put aside their differences to confront an existential threat neuters the central problem in Passengers: The ostensible “hero” isn’t a hero whatsoever, at least not until he puts his own life on the line.
In Passengers, though, Preston’s decision doesn’t carry the emotional or ethical weight it should have, in large part because Jim comes to his decision after a year of wandering alone on a sleek, if antiseptic, state-of-the-art spaceship compressed into a “greatest hits” montage. Despite Preston’s third-class status (he received a less expensive ticket in exchange for permanent wage garnishment), he partakes in all of the amenities offered by the super-advanced starship, the Avalon, transporting 5,000 colonists and over 200 crew members to the new world where they’ll be free of the indignities and humiliations of living on an overpopulated Earth, but all the rich, fatty food, video games, and tinkering with the ship’s spare parts isn’t enough to make Preston happy. After a spacewalk overwhelms Preston with the usual wonder and awe typical of walking between the stars, he contemplates suicide by airlock, but immediately relents when he comes across Aurora’s angelic beauty. Preston convinces himself it’s fate or destiny or what-have-you, but when he finally decides to wake Aurora, he also decides against telling her the truth, doubling compounding the morally, ethically decision to awaken her from her 120-year sleep.
Both the crime against Aurora – awakening her without her permission, robbing her of agency – and a lie – not telling her the truth, hangs heavily over Passengers’ middle section. Preston initially gives Aurora room, letting her slowly acclimatize to the reality of being awakened 89 years too soon. Preston watches from a respectful distance while Aurora goes through the five stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, swooping in when she’s finally settled in and accepted her fate. Luckily for Preston, Aurora reciprocates his romantic interest, made all the easier for Preston since he closely studied her online profile and videos before he decided to wake her up. Ultimately, of course, their idyllic paradise on an automated spaceship goes awry when the lie inadvertently surfaces. By then, however, the glitch that knocked Preston out of hibernation has led to an entire series of glitches (alas, not in the Matrix) that threatens the safety not just of Preston and Aurora, but ship’s complement of future colonists and crew members.
The big third-act threat allows the screenwriter, Jon Spaihts, and the director, Morten Tyldum, to sidestep the moral and ethical consequences of Preston’s decision.
It’s a major cop-out, of course. Forcing Preston and Aurora to put aside their differences to confront an existential threat neuters the central problem in Passengers: The ostensible “hero” isn’t a hero whatsoever, at least not until he puts his own life on the line. By then, it’s just another narrative cheat or contrivance inserted into Passengers to cover for Preston’s essentially unforgivable, irredeemable decision: To assuage his own loneliness, he’s sacrificed someone else’s life. The big third-act threat allows the screenwriter, Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange, Prometheus), and the director, Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game, Headhunters), to sidestep the moral and ethical consequences of Preston’s decision to awaken Aurora from hibernation. Instead, Aurora receives a lecture about loneliness from an unexpected quarter, coupled with Preston’s late-film heroism and willingness to sacrifice himself for the lives of others all but absolves Preston of responsibility for his actions.
Until then, it leaves Aurora with little to do except warm up to Preston’s working class charms (she later admits surprise at their cross-class bonding/attachment), fall in love with him via meet-cute activities like expensive dinners, one-on-one basketball games, and video games, only to sulk and pout when she finds out the truth about her captivity (Preston essentially kidnaps her, but she doesn’t know it). Preston, however, is only a character. He may have robbed Aurora of agency when he unplugged her hibernation pod, but Spaihts and Tyldum made Aurora an idealized, romanticized character rather than a well-developed, complex one with her own needs and desires. But maybe we shouldn’t have expected more from a film written and directed by men centered on a uniquely male predicament.
Passengers, the sci-fi drama/romance from screenwriter Jon Spaihts and director Morten Tyldum, introduces moral and ethical questions, but a big third-act threat in allows the film to completely sidestep these questions, resulting in a disappointing cop-out.