Passengers: A Dangerous Film With A Cheap Version Of Redemption
From the moment the first intriguing trailer for Passengers appeared, it was always clear that there was going to be a twist. The trouble with writing about it is that like all films with early plot twists, to really discuss the most important themes involves giving the game away. Normally then, we'd give you a spoiler-free review, and only hint at what the story might really about. On this occasion however, that isn't going to work, because on a faith-based website, our interest is in the morals, worldview and (if present) theology of any film. And in Passengers the twist itself has a serious morality problem.
So just to be clear: if you want to see Passengers (and I'm not particularly going to recommend that you do), don't read any further. This review contains major plot spoilers.
In the far future, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is a passenger on a spaceship travelling at half the speed of light to a colony world. The trouble is, he wakes up from suspended animation about 30 years in to a 120-year voyage. There's no obvious reason why this has happened, but it becomes clear that there's no way to restart the process. So Preston is alone on a luxury space liner (although his ticket only allows him access to the economy-level perks), with only an android bartender (Michael Sheen) for company.
The first half an hour, which features Jim alone in deep space, trying to comprehend the enormity of his solitude, is enticing. It's a little bit like an intergalactic version of the opening to 28 Days Later, and you quickly grow in sympathy for this unfortunate man, who tries to force some kind of purpose into his seemingly fruitless existence. He knows that by the time the rest of the passengers wake up, he'll be long dead.
Then, Jim makes a decision. He becomes obsessed with the casket containing Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a sleeping beauty who, it turns out from the pre-boarding interviews which he finds, is not only gorgeous, but also funny, intelligent and interesting. And despite trying to stop himself for a full three minutes, Jim is unable to resist temptation; he wakes her up, blaming a similar malfunction to the one which woke him. In doing so, he drags her down into his own personal hell, and sentences her to a lifetime in an empty ship with him. Essentially he does this because she's really hot.
With Jim gaslighting the story, Aurora quickly believes that the ship has dealt her the same fate as him, and despite being a famous and impressive journalist, she never stops to ask for a moment whether something more sinister might have happened (this is the film's first major flaw). Instead, she processes the awfulness of her plight fairly quickly, and then promptly falls in love with Jim. That's right: he's essentially long-term murdered her, and now they're sleeping together. To say it's all a bit problematic is an understatement.
Inevitably, the truth comes out, and Aurora flies into a rage, but then circumstances on the ship heat up a bit, and she's forced to put all that girly grumpiness to one side. Jim does a few heroic things, and before you know it, Aurora is kissing him again. All is forgiven, because when it looks like he might die trying to save them both, he doesn't. It's essentially Stockholm Syndrome in space.
Even then, the film has a chance to put things right: they discover a way to put Aurora back to sleep, which would leave him alone again. But she doesn't take it. Instead she chooses to live out the rest of her years alone in deep space with Jim, the guy who decided that he would sentence her to die with him on the ship instead of travelling to a distant utopia full of eligible people. Still, at least he's a loveable hunk.
Passengers is a male abduction fantasy. It's a story about forced consent, in which the victim eventually grows to love her captor. If you don't believe me, just switch the sci-fi setting to an underground basement in the Mid-West of America, and maybe swap Chris Pratt for Steve Buscemi. Jim is a social outcast who feels alone, so he brings a pretty woman into an isolated world from which she can never escape, and slowly makes her accept her fate and fall in love with him. When you put it like that, Passengers has more in common with an abduction story like Room than a space romance like Wall-E.
Consequently, the experience of watching Passengers is, or at least should be, deeply uncomfortable. By letting Jim's ugly scheme win in the end, the film has a horribly flawed morality, where a cheap version of redemption allows a misogynistic sin to be forgiven without real consequence. In fact, it even tries to show Jim's flawed everyman (because we'd all do it, wouldn't we viewers?) redeeming Aurora's lost and self-centred character through his actions – as if justifying them. By the end of the film, she's actually grateful.
If you can somehow put the ethics to one side for a moment, Passengers is pretty good sci-fi fare, operating as it is in the shadow of last week's majestic Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are likeable stock versions of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, and the cliche-spouting Michael Sheen character is a worthy addition to the guild of movie androids. The 'world' of the film is interesting and well-drawn, and there's an impressive attention to detail on the physics front, with serious attempts made to imagine how the science would work. It's a pity they didn't apply as much thinking to the fiction side of things.
The film needs to be robustly critiqued, because the millions of teenage boys (and girls) who will see it, will leave the cinema having been presented with a view of sex and relationships in which consent is relative. Jim receives a bit of a kicking and a couple of eye rolls for his behaviour, but ultimately his reward appears to justify his means. In 2016, I hope we live in a world in which people are free to choose who they spend their life with; and that's not the world that Passengers offers us. Alongside that, the film's version of redemption is also there to be critiqued; to be held up against the selfless model of Christ who gave of himself to save others, not to take life from them but to give it back. This movie is a wolf in sheep's clothing, subtly espousing a dangerously problematic worldview within the context of a glossy space romance.
Just because something feels good, doesn't make it right. Ultimately that's the problem with the plot, and even the experience of watching Passengers. All the components of a great sci-fi story are there, but in the end, you rightly can't shake the feeling that this story isn't good for you.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.