Passengers is a Psychological Thriller That Lost Itself in a Rom-Com
I watched PASSENGERS last night.
There was so much hoopla for the script when it was in development hell. The writer, Jon Spaihts, penned the original script for Prometheus. It was later rewritten by Damon Lindelof. Of course, Alien fans blamed Lindelof for their disappointment and pointed to the script for Passengers as proof that Jon Spaihts would have done a better job.
I’m not getting that. Mostly, I’m feeling what those Alien fans felt when they saw Prometheus: this is one of the most disappointing films I’ve seen in years.
Here be spoilers!
The first act of Passengers is absolutely incredible. Jim wakes up to an empty ship, and realizes his hibernation ended 90 years early. He can’t get to the crew, he can’t find a way to put himself back into hibernation. The desolation is real. He nearly commits suicide, he holds a propped up space suit for human contact. If the robot bartender had legs, they probably would have become lovers and Passengers would become my favorite movie of all time.
Alas, the bartender has no legs and serves only to callback The Shining, reminding the audience of the sort of madness isolation can cause. Jim’s loneliness leads him to the pod chamber. It’s there that he becomes obsessed with Aurora. He digs up her immigration interviews, reads everything the ship has about her, and wiles away by her side. The decision to wake her is not one that came easily. Jim struggled and fought against the impulse, but his loneliness won.
This is riveting stuff. There is a lot of talk that paints Jim as an evil male asshole for doing this, but what else could he do? Can you honestly claim that you wouldn’t do the same? I don’t believe you. Get off your moral high horse and be real enough for a second to even consider the possibility.
Exploring moral dilemmas like this can be the separating point for entertainment and art. A good film will put you in a situation you’re uncomfortable with and make you question what you’re capable of. By the end, you’ve learned something. I live for this. I live for the first two acts of Passengers.
The tone shifts from psychological thriller to romantic comedy when Aurora accepts her fate. She and Jim live it up on their private luxury liner. They date, play games, and joke with the bartender robot. While disorienting, this change in tone is necessary for the big reveal to hit her hardest. Just when Aurora admits that it might not be so bad, her world is shattered when it slips that Jim deliberately woke her for companionship. This is when the movie should really get interesting.
But it doesn’t. It never shifts back to psychological thriller. We get five minutes of Aurora’s glorious dark side before Laurence Fishburne’s character wakes up, and the tone reverts to the happy-jokey days of their courtship. Issues of moral ambiguity are tossed aside for some half-baked Hollywood action sequence to save the ship. They’re both heroes, and all is forgiven. The movie forgets the hard questions it’s asked and settles for being a romantic comedy, minus the actual comedy.
As John Serba said in his review, “Passengers is the most lighthearted movie about existential despair you’ll likely ever see.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
If you look at the original script, it’s clear Passengers became the victim of Hollywoodism in production. Jon Spaihts’ climax is more subdued – Jim and Aurora save the ship, but this tricks the system into believing they’ve docked and it releases the hibernation pods into space. They watch the pods spin away, and Aurora remarks that she would have died if Jim did not wake her. The film ends with the ship landing in Homestead II and a handful of their descendants walk out.
This is better, but not perfect. It knows this story isn’t a romance, but the ending is abrupt and confusing. The hard questions still aren’t dealt with.
It’s wildly frustrating, because the premise holds massive potential. Passengers needed room to grow, and I really feel it would have served better as a mini-series. Aurora’s anger at her life being stolen from her deserves more than five minutes of screen time. What is a person that angry capable of? She is in a unique situation of being murdered, indirectly, yet capable of exacting vengeance on the person responsible. Could she do it? Would she kill Jim?
What if she killed Jim, only to inevitably find herself just as lonely and desperate for human contact? In the end, would she do exactly the same unforgivable thing to someone else?
Further, what if two people, alone on such a voyage, reproduced? The original script has a small crowd of descendants walking out on to Homestead II. What was their childhood like? What kind of disasters would they face on their voyage?
There’s 90 years of human psyche to explore here, and Passengers really could have used some room to get into it.
How soon is too soon for a reboot? I want to get my hands dirty.
But we’re keeping the zero grav swimming pool. So cool.