Friday, December 30, 2016

In defense of PASSENGERS

Every now and then I see a film get a reaction that makes me wonder if I saw the same movie as the rest of the audience. When OBLIVION came out, it was so aggressively panned that I waited until DVD to view it, upon which I discovered a very entertaining, well-made sci-fi film. Slightly more recently, I felt that the aggressive hate for TOMORROWLAND felt quite out of proportion to the mildly disappointing but still interesting film.

And then there's PASSENGERS. Last weekend, it felt like you couldn't swing a dead cat on the internet without hitting someone ready to tell you that the premise was creepy, or that the film was sexist, or that the ethics of the film were appalling.

In a nutshell, here's the premise of the script by Jon Spaihts: Jim is one of 5000 passengers in cryo-sleep for a 120-year voyage to a new colony planet. Due to a completely unprecedented malfunction, his chamber wakes him after 30 years, making him the only person set to be awake for 90 years. He can't go back to sleep and though the ship is programmed to tend to his needs, his only companion is a robot bartender. In other words, he's facing the prospect of never having human contact for the rest of his life.

This is tantamount to solitary confinement, a practice that many psychologists consider inhumane. This article from Gizmodo calls it "the worst kind of psychological torture" and in fact, "solitary confinement beyond 15 days leads directly to severe and irreversible psychological harm. But for some, it can manifest in even less time." We need to take this into consideration and then note that Jim spends an entire YEAR alone on the ship before he comes very close to attempting suicide.

Human beings are social creatures and without that interaction, Jim is trapped in hell. However, he's tech-savvy enough that he knows how to wake up someone else. Company would go a long way to relieving his pain, but there are other ethical concerns. Jim discusses this with his bartender, likening it to being trapped forever on an island, but having the power to transport one person there, knowing that you were ruining their life.

This one interaction alone shows that the film is aware of the ethics behind Jim's predicament. By questioning it in such a way, I don't understand how anyone could come away from the film thinking the movie sees what Jim does as pure. It's largely about the question of if you could make your personal Hell more bearable by condemning someone else to join you. He ultimately awakens the beautiful Aurora, leading her to believe another malfunction is to blame for her state.

Where many of the critics seem to miss the mark is where they equate Jim's actions with a violation of sexual consent. I think it's offensive to actual rape victims to equate anything in this film with sexual assault. To me, what Jim does is not about sex so much as it's about human contact. He needs a companion ship that isn't necessarily sexual. Sure, the water is muddied because the two DO fall for each other and there's no lack of sex appeal on the part of Aurora's portrayer, Jennifer Lawrence.

If Jim had woken up a man, someone who he felt would be his Number One Bro, would we still be having this debate? PASSENGERS seems most interested in the morality behind alleviating your pain by sharing it with someone else. I don't even know if I'd necessarily argue that the film comes down on the side of it being right, but it DOES depict how a desperate person might come to believe this is the only course of action available to them.

Seriously, could YOU face the prospect of 90 years alone on a ship? How far would you have to be pushed before you convinced yourself you HAD to have human contact? And once you arranged that, would you really be forthright with the fact that you caused the malfunction? Jim certainly makes selfish choices, but they're selfish choices in the midst of an incredibly painful experience. I also don't believe you have to choose between being sympathetic to Jim and sympathetic to Aurora.

Aurora rightly is furious when she learns Jim engineered her awakening. "You MURDERED me!" she screams, more than once. The blossoming romance is immediately dead, and she begins a period of shutting him out. At this point, I thought the film might explore her isolation as a way of depicting what her loneliness might drive her to. This path could lead her to understanding Jim's horrible decision, even as it isn't necessary for her to condone it.

Instead, the third act brings Jim and Aurora together to resolve the increasing malfunctions of ship's systems. It turns out that an asteroid impact is to blame for the damage that shut down Jim's pod and that the other damage it caused has built up into a reactor malfunction that will destroy the ship. To save everyone, Jim has to go outside the ship and open a door manually so Aurora can vent the reactor while he's stuck in the path of the radiation. It means certain death, and indeed, he takes the direct blast with only a small shield to deflect it. Though Jim told her not to come for him, Aurora dons a spacesuit of her own and risks her life to bring him back, where he is resuscitated.

There's some criticism that the third-act crisis is a convenient way to let Jim off the hook. If he hadn't woken her, then there would have been no one else to help him save the ship and the entire crew. Aurora is presented with a situation where she can say, "If he hadn't woken me, I'd be dead."

This would be a more fair criticism if the film embraced it. I believe it does not. A couple points to recall:

- As the crisis reaches its peak, Aurora suggests waking some of the crew. There's no hesitation on her part, even though this means they would share her fate on the 90-year voyage. In the context of this moment, doing so would directly save 5000 people as well as herself, so yes, there is a "needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few" scenario. But she's not without self-interest here either. Remember too, that Jim would have died had he not acted to preserve his own sanity.

- Aurora goes against Jim's wishes when she risks herself to save him. Jim is content to die saving everyone else. Is her motivation romantic? I don't think it necessarily has to be, and the film allows for the interpretation that it's not. Aurora surely knows all the details of Jim's horrible year alone and what being that alone did to him. If Jim dies, this is the fate she's facing - the total abyss of loneliness for the rest of her life. Is risking herself for him a purely selfless act? Or is it one she willingly takes because it would be better to die quickly than in the lingering slow torture Jim endured?

Taking those together, I don't think we can discount that Aurora comes to understand what pushed Jim to awaken her. She's stared that same fate in the eye and it gives her what she needs to accept his choice. The ending is not about letting Jim off the hook so much as it's about pushing Aurora to her limits. In the end, she needs companionship just as much as Jim did. This is why I feel that even if there had not been an immediate crisis, Aurora would have eventually thawed things with Jim. Whether that came as a result of madness, Stockholm Syndrome or genuine empathy is a matter of debate.

Moreover, this is easier to see if you're not determined to equate Jim with being a "stalker." He's not a calculating and manipulative predator. The film more accurately diagnoses him as a drowning man grabbing for any life preserver. You can decry his actions, but the point of the film is to make you ask, "What if you were the one who was drowning?"

It disturbs me that we see art being attacked for merely exploring complex scenarios like this. Back when Indecent Proposal was made, did people think that just by making the film, the creators were advocating that a married woman sleep with a billionaire for one million dollars? If we discourage art that asks uncomfortable questions or explores moral grey areas, what will be left with? You can be uncomfortable with Jim does and still acknowledge that the film doesn't endorse it by building drama around it.

Passengers is the story of a man pushed to his moral limits. The more I examine it, the more I suspect the film is rejected out of hand by viewers uncomfortable contemplating what they would truly do in Jim's shoes.

Bonus: I wrote an article for Film School Rejects in which I worked out how Jim and Aurora could have used the functioning medical pod at the end of the film to take turns sleeping long enough for both of them to make it to the colony within their lifespans. You can find it here.


  1. I think the tricky part is that Jim goes from being fine with waking up the bridge crew to waking up a fellow passenger because she's beautiful & seems like good company. When Gus joins the story, you suddenly start thinking: 255 crew members and Jim couldn't get access to ANY of them? Or any passenger with a medical/hibernation b.g.?

    That's when it started to get really creepy for me, because the movie is not a documentary -- it's a series of choices, made by the screenwriter, director and studio. And I can see that all of these forces together have matched Jim with a beautiful woman whom he's convinced he "knows" because he's read her work and watched her interviews. This whole drowning metaphor has a troubling "he couldn't help himself!" undercurrent that would be a lot less troubling if she had any skill set or b.g. that might help him go back to sleep.

    I would have forgiven a lot if Jim had found a woman who, upon waking, would have been like: Oh, I woke up by accident? That's fucked up, but I do have some skills in this area so let's figure out what happened... and then realizes for herself what happened, and in the process, discovers that the ship is falling apart.

    You notice, btw, that I don't mention a love story. I think that's the other hiccup -- the movie *wants* to be a love story. That's the happy dream that gets interrupted by the ship's trouble. But I think foregrounding the relationship -- as much of a rich, appealing fantasy as I can see that might be -- ignores the more obvious reality of their situation.

    For better or worse, that ignorance becomes Jim's, because he's there, pleading his case, even over the PA system at one point. Neither Jim nor the movie is really open to the idea that Aurora could *not* forgive him -- what choice does she have, really?

    But if Aurora had been written with any kind of tech background, she could have been the one to find the hibernation chamber, and she had told Jim to get in it -- because she's that angry at him, that he'd wake her up to spend eternity with him, that she's rather die alone than spend the rest of her life with him? Well, we'd understand she had found a way to move on.

    If the ship's problems got much worse THEN and they had to work together -- *that* could have been the foundation for an honest relationship, built on equal teamwork. Because in the end, you don't want to go through life with a beautiful or entertaining person, you want to go through life with a *partner*.

    (Or at least, that would be the thesis of this version, as opposed to "Hey, it's great to be alive, right?")

    1. I think they did a pretty good job justifying that the crew members were all isolated from Jim's grasp. That makes a certain amount of sense to me, so I'm not inclined to nitpick that.

      One point worth remembering is that Jim takes an entire year to go from "I should just wake up the crew" to waking someone else up out of loneliness. And you do raise a good point about how he might have tried to find someone with hibernation expertise, but it's also laid out that you can't just use the pods to put you to sleep, that there's a much more complicated procedure that (as far as Jim knows at that point) can't be replicated on the ship.

      It feels like at the point Jim wakes up Aurora, he's given up on the idea that there's any way to go back to sleep. His use of the "desert island" metaphor pretty much states this. As far as he's concerned, he's stuck there and the only question is if he's gonna ride it out alone or condemn someone else to the fate by waking them up.

      I don't quite agree with the idea that the film wants to be a love story. If they were going that route, I don't think they'd have been so aggressive with Aurora's "He murdered me!" They also probably would have played the reveal differently, perhaps by having Aurora find out the truth as the crisis is underway, basically forcing her to put it aside.

      I find it telling that despite Aurora's big gesture of risking herself to save him, we don't get anything that assures us that the rest of their time together was some kind of epic romance. I think they wanted to leave that ambiguous, giving us reason to wonder if perhaps their second relationship was more platonic than their first.

      If there's a commentary track on the DVD, I really hope it addresses some of these talking points.

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  3. I completely agree. I wrote this on Facebook after finally seeing the movie. I had put off seeing it, initially, because of the poor ratings on RT and MC, not realizing that most of the people who were rating it hadn't seen it and were giving it low ratings to "protest the sick message."

    "The people who got so angry over Passengers that they took to the internet to complain about "normalizing misogyny" missed the point so entirely that the movie could have been called "Moral Complexity" and they still wouldn't have understood; the moral dilemma posed is the entire backbone of why the movie is as strong as it is.
    If you decided to skip the movie because you heard it's getting bad reviews, you can effectively ignore them. Nearly every negative review I read had nothing to do with the movie, and everything to do with uncompromising ideologues being uncomfortable with the idea of having their views challenged.
    It's a really solid movie; not the greatest to come out of the 2016 holiday releases, but it works, and the backlash its receiving just makes me shake my head. Pratt and Lawrence are two of the best actors working when it comes to having incredible chemistry with whomever their sharing the screen with, and when pointed at each other, the effect is almost unreal."

  4. Indecent Proposal was promoted on the question of "What would you do?"

    I wonder if Passengers would have fared better with the initial reaction to it, if it too had been promoted with a "What would you do? Spend the rest of your life alone - or wake up Jennifer Lawrence so it's just the two of you?"

    I too didn't see what most of the criticism was about, for the first two thirds of the film it is pretty clear that Jim's decision is wrong. It's almost as if the reaction was as guided by the real content of the film (and its own judgement that Jim's decision is creepy) into reacting against the way it was sold.

    That said, the final third starts to become much more like the romance-with-sci-fi-action promised in the trailers. It feels like the film is trying too hard to bring Jim and Aurora back together. Even forgetting the slightly silly huge action, the emotional throughline for Aurora could have been more subtle.

    For instance, just before Jim is to go outside in order to try and unblock the reactor plumbing, she tells him not to die, as she can't bear to be without him. If she'd said "don't die, I can't be left alone" that wouldn't effectively end the question of whether she will end up with Jim.

    Once he's back in, she could have been overwhelmed and jumped him, only to have second thoughts. Or she could simply have been less enamoured. Or he could have thought he'd won her back only to find that she was glad he was alive but wasn't looking to rekindle their relationship.

    This would have left the question of whether she chooses to go back to sleep in the medical pod for the next 90 years a bit more open. As it is, this lacks a real decision. We know she's going to choose Jim, as she has twice already.

    All the references to Kubrick seemed to get lost in the final third. The loneliness and the wrongness of Jim's decision certainly worked within the idea of The Shining In Space (the axe to the crew's impenetrable door another nod along with Sheen Robot and the bar), but by the end I was left uncertain as to what the nods to both The Shining and 2001 (the corridor) were for...

  5. He did a technically immoral thing that serendipitously wound up saving her, and the other 5000 passengers on the ship.