Major spoilers for Passengers in this post! If you plan to see it, don’t read this yet!
Yesterday I saw the movie Passengers. It looked like a popcorn sci-fi flick about two people (Chris Pratt’s Jim and Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora) who awake from hibernation sleep on a 120-year ride to a new planet. The trouble is that they wake up about 90 years too early and can’t get back to sleep. But the movie ended up being much more thought-provoking than just that.
What impressed me about this film is that the trailers don’t give away the full story. Jim is actually the only one who wakes up early — and then, after months of total solitude, he researches about another passenger, falls in love with her, and decides to wake her from her hibernation pod so he won’t have to be alone anymore. It’s a purely selfish decision. He agonizes over it. When he wakes her, he obviously doesn’t tell her what he did — she assumes her pod also malfunctioned and feels bad Jim lived alone for so long before she awoke.
It’s such a great premise for a science fiction story.
The first 20 minutes or so of the movie — maybe more — just revolve around Jim waking up and being alone on the ship. Watching him try in vain to get back to sleep in his pod, to wake the crew so he can get help, to send a message back to Earth is surprisingly realistic. Each move he makes, I was right there with him. I would have done those same exact things. And while this film is much glossier than Moon, the premise of a man alone in space definitely reminded me of that movie and Sam Rockwell’s amazing performance in it.
What I found so fascinating about the story is Jim’s months-long toil over whether or not to wake Aurora from hibernation — and his guilt after going through with it. As an outsider, I felt bad for him being alone. I could see him mentally deteriorating without another human being to connect with. But the idea of waking up another person, stealing their life from them that way, is undeniably awful. It’s borderline unforgivable.
After he wakes Aurora, Jim returns to his room, head in his hands. That prevented me from hating him, at least. The fact that Chris Pratt is so likable and his credible performance here also helped win me over, at least in part.
The story invites you to judge Jim, yet it also dares you to think about what you would do if you were in his situation. What would you stoop to? And then you think maybe it’s best not to judge.
I would have been happy if this had been the end of the story, at least thematically. But it’s not.
After months of romance between the two, Aurora eventually finds out what Jim did. She wants nothing more to do with him. Her reaction is so believable. This is a story where you can definitely see both sides, and you feel for both characters.
Okay, so that would have been the perfect ending too. At least thematically. But it’s not.
Next, twists and turns and explosive action scenes gradually turn the film into something more than a tale about human nature. It turns out Jim’s pod malfunctioned because something is wrong with the ship, and it’s up to Jim and Aurora to figure out what that is and save the other 5,000+ souls onboard. Jim risks his life to save the ship.
I can see the value of this part of the story: It makes Aurora realize she doesn’t want Jim to die, while also redeeming Jim because we see he is willing to sacrifice himself for others. When they discover a way for one of them to re-enter hibernation, Jim lets Aurora do so — but she decides she would rather live out the rest of her life with him on the ship.
With these new plot twists, as the story progresses, the theme devolves. The web of isolation and guilt and human connection that’s so prominent in the first hour or so of the movie deteriorates into cheesy predictability and gushing romance. Jim’s not really going to die. Aurora’s not really going to go back into hibernation. Of course they’re going to live their lives together on the ship, happily ever after.
The problem for me comes down to genre. Passengers is meant to be a big budget action movie with bankable stars — nothing inherently wrong with that, they did a great job! And I’m a fan of those types of films. But the premise is so delicate and intimate, it felt more like a character study than an action movie. It would have worked well on a smaller scale, and the ending could have been much stronger with some tragedy or ambiguity threaded in. Not every film needs a big action scene, a come-back-from-death moment, or even a happy ending. I’m not sure why these were all thrown in there.
I guess there’s a reason Passengers reminded me ever so slightly of Moon: It would have made an excellent indie science fiction film.
I enjoyed Passengers a lot and still highly recommend sci-fi fans watch the movie. It’s just surprising to see that it’s strangely deeper than a popcorn flick and much cheesier than an indie. There’s an amazing, heartfelt story in here that I just wish had played out differently.