It’s the $100 million blockbuster with two of the biggest stars in Hollywood that was supposed to be romantic… but ended up being creepy. Jayne Nelson takes a look at Passengers, ponders where it wrong and suggests how it could have been fixed. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)
First there’s one thing we’d like to get straight: despite the title of this piece, we’re not gleefully dancing on Passengers’ grave, laughing that it only received middling reviews and that it tanked at the box-office. We don’t like to see a film fail – to wish that upon a movie is an insult to all the people who worked so hard on it. We’re not monsters here: we wish it had worked.
We love Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, after all. And there were wonderful moments scattered throughout the film (Michael Sheen’s android bartender, for one), it was inventive in many ways, and the effects were absolutely stunning, not least that incredible scene in a zero-gravity swimming pool that will haunt us for years.
Nobody sets out to make a bad film. We should never cheer about someone’s artistic vision turning bad.
However, it’s hard to find it in ourselves to forgive Passengers for some of the most cowardly writing to hit a movie screen this year. There were at least two huge ways it could have been improved, each requiring a risk from a studio that should have had the guts to try them, rather than focusing on the sexist route they did take, which was… well, for want of another world, “icky”.
It did feel as though Passengers was cursed from the start, though. Right from the moment they cast the two leads, there were dark rumblings about Columbia Pictures’ new blockbuster – which had languished in development hell for many years before they finally decided to crack on with it. Many were stunned to hear that Jennifer Lawrence was said to have pocketed $20 million, with many haters complaining that it was too high (it certainly drove up the costs of the movie). Others couldn’t understand why she received more than Chris Pratt, who was paid $12 million.
Personally we think it’s about bloody time female actors were paid the same (or, in this case, more) ludicrous amounts as the male ones, and if you have a problem with that, it’s not Lawrence’s fault. Hollywood isn’t known for its restraint when it comes to paying stars ridiculous sums of moolah, is it? And sometimes those risks pay off: a bankable star is a bankable star, after all, and making movies is a business first and foremost.
It’s still a shocking amount of money, of course, but you don’t see people freaking out to this extent about male actors’ fees. If you complained, hopefully you’ll also complain about every lead role in every big movie from now onwards, whether it stars a man or a woman. Make your point, but make it equally.
However, putting all this aside, the vast majority of the abuse aimed at the film focused on its central relationship, that of Pratt’s Jim and Lawrence’s Aurora. And it was abuse that was 100% deserved, too. How the filmmakers didn’t see it as a problem they should have flagged at the outset is a mystery that may never be solved…
We assume you’ve seen the film, as you’re reading this. If not, prepare to be royally spoiled. Passengers opens with Jim waking up from suspended animation on an interstellar ship, 90 years before reaching his destination. He can’t go back to sleep again. There are 5,000 other people on the ship with him, but they’re all in dreamland. He’s horrendously lonely and even considers suicide – a moving performance from Pratt, there – but finally, after grappling with his conscience, he wakes up a woman he’s been fascinated with from her sleeping pod to keep him company.
So far, we actually think this is great. It’s a fantastic moral quandary, isn’t it? What would you do in that situation? Would you wake someone up if you realised you’d be on your own for the rest of your life in the silent void of space? Wouldn’t you go slightly potty, too? Wouldn’t you get desperate? If you can say you’d refuse to do it, you have a strength of character that Jim doesn’t have – and good for you. But not all of us might be that strong. The one good thing is that we’ll never be in that situation ourselves, which is why we have movies to ponder these questions for us.
But here’s where everything goes horribly wrong with the script and Passengers in general. After waking her for his own selfish purposes, Jim pretends that Aurora’s pod malfunctioned. She doesn’t know that he woke her. And so this twentysomething woman finds herself stuck on a ship with a total stranger for the rest of her life, with no way of going back to sleep or summoning help.
She doesn’t know it, but Jim has destroyed her life.
And WORSE, after a while all the guilty, puppy-eyed looks he keeps throwing her way result in her falling for him, without having a clue that he’s a manipulative liar. And what does Jim do? Accepts her with open arms, resolves never to tell her the truth and they have sex.
If you’re watching this film without knowing their background, you’d actually find them an adorable couple, because they are (that’s where Lawrence and Pratt arguably earn their gigantic fees: they’re always watchable and charming). But you DO know what happened, and yet you’re expected to be rooting for them as a couple. It’s astonishing. You’re basically being asked to support Jim as he abuses someone – in a weird way, he’s groomed her to be his partner. It’s not as if he woke up someone unattractive, is it? He deliberately chose the prettiest woman he saw. He fancied her. He watched videos of her before he made the choice. He knew she was hot. Jim didn’t just wake her up to be a companion: he woke her to be his sexual partner.
Oh dear. Skeevy much?
Of course, as the movie goes on, Aurora eventually finds out what Jim did and freaks out. In a braver film, this might have been the end of it. He finally gets his comeuppance (a life alone aboard the ship, as she refuses to go anywhere near him) but instead, disappointingly, Passengers decides to throw in a huge action sequence that brings the former couple together again. Jim risks his life to save the ship and its 5,000 sleepers, and Aurora realises that she loves him.
Because of course she does. That’s what Hollywood expects from its heroines, after all: to partner the hunky male lead and give him a happy ending (all double-entendres intended). This is what Hollywood loves: a feelgood romantic drama, no strings attached.
But there were some pretty major strings here. Would she genuinely forgive him? Even taking into account the fact that it required two of them to save the ship and all those other lives, and so technically he did the right thing by waking her up (possibly the only genuinely good side you can see about his choice, even if it was a totally accidental benefit), would she still be able to put aside all that deceit, all that lying?
In the real world (or, er, spaceship) she might have been able to do that – but we’d wager it would’ve taken her years to work through it. These two should never have been a couple by the time the end credits rolled: by giving them a heartwarming happy-ever-after, Passengers implied that Jim was a hero and we were wrong to judge him.
No. No. No. As many have pointed out, he basically woke up a woman so he could have some sex and someone to talk to, pretending the whole time that he hadn’t done just that. It’s not something she should have forgiven him for. While we felt for him as he struggled to make that choice, the fact he deceived her afterwards made him a villain, not a conflicted hero. Audiences are right to call the script on its dubious morality; it has all the morals of Vlad The Impaler.
Calling Charlie Brooker!
Yet there were two ways Passengers could have avoided this controversy, if only the studio and its writers had been braver, more willing to challenge the norms of Hollywood filmmaking. What they should have done is pitched it as the big-screen equivalent of an episode of Black Mirror. Passengers should have been smaller, more inventive, more daring – more real. It should have been a clever little story about a moral quandary rather than an enormous, CGI-filled strained romance.
Here’s one thing it could have done: have Aurora be the one to wake up Jim.
See how different the film feels already? By giving the woman the power to shape someone’s life, suddenly everything seems turned on its head. It’s all about her, rather than – as is the case in the current movie – being all about him.
While this does nothing to change the central issue of taking away another person’s right to choose, it certainly feels fresher to show a woman doing that to a man, doesn’t it? In a sense, it makes him her plaything, rather than the familiar scenario of the woman being subordinate to the man. The writers could have made her an engineer and him the writer, to avoid the film’s current stereotyping. The whole thing could have been entirely different – empowering, while being just as creepy.
(Or would it? Would male viewers have been as grossed out at being awakened by a woman, as the female ones were on being awakened by a man? We assume so, but guess we’ll never know now; and it would have been so interesting to have had that discussion, wouldn’t it?)
Plus, from a purely logical viewpoint, given that a good chunk of the film doesn’t even feature Lawrence, wouldn’t it have been better to give her more screen time as she was earning so much more money than her co-star?
Why didn’t anybody think of that? It seems so flipping obvious in retrospect! But no, we had to have Jim making that choice, because he’s the man. Thanks for that cliché.
As for the second way Passengers could have been made better:
It needed a bleaker ending. The script by Jon Spaihts originally ended with Jim and Aurora fighting for their lives after the ship malfunctions, but this time the problem results in all the thousands of sleeping colonists being ejected into space, leaving our two leads behind on the ship as the only two survivors. It’s a brave finale (you can read about it here), but it certainly doesn’t tackle that whole “morality” issue.
So, how about this? At the end of the film, Jim dies saving the ship. He’s redeemed himself. It’s a good character arc for him: he proves he’s not entirely evil, but he doesn’t get the girl. And quite right, too: he didn’t deserve her. This is exactly what he needed.
However, and here’s the brave bit: now Aurora is on her own. Stuck on that ship for the rest of her life. Lonely. Sad. Desperate. Experiencing everything Jim went through before he woke her up.
What if the final shot of Passengers had been Aurora standing over someone sleeping peacefully in their pod, trying to decide whether to wake them or not? What if she did to them exactly what Jim did to her?
If that’s not Black Mirror material, we don’t know what is. It’s a comment on the nature of wrongdoing, and would open up an entirely new conversation about the film that could have saved it. The more you think about it, the more wonderful it is: all those arguments the couple have when Jim’s secret is revealed, all those statements Aurora made about him ruining her life… would she have been strong enough to stop doing it to another person? Would she live up to her own moral standards, or fall as Jim did? The Twilight Zone would be proud to call this dilemma one of its scripts.
Alas, this was too radical for Passengers, assuming anybody even thought of it. Instead, Hollywood demanded that their two golden actors get to spend the rest of their lives floating in space in each other’s arms.
It’s a terrible missed opportunity, and it makes Passengers – a film that has many great moments in among all the uneasiness – a failure, when it could have been the bravest blockbuster in cinemas in years. What a pity.