In Defense of Passengers

Last night, I watched Passengers, the film starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence whose characters wake up far too early on a colonial spaceship that’s en route to a new planet. I think it’s a film that certainly has its flaws but is ultimately worth a viewing for any fan of character-driven science-fiction. It’s a film that, given a fair shake, deserves attention for some solid storytelling and acting. But critics panned it.

With such an interesting premise and two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, you might think it was a solid bet. So what happened?

It’s conjecture, and a film’s failure and success is contingent on innumerable factors, but I think Passengers is another film where the critics got it wrong. What’s more, the film sufficiently and specifically addresses the most substantial problems in the second half, which makes me wonder if the critics who panned it checked out after a major development in the first half in which a character does something utterly, morally repugnant, something that is a huge risk in the realm of storytelling, something good stories have to do to be memorable and effective.

Spoiler alert

I spoil the hell out of the film below, so if you haven’t seen it and plan to, you may want to wait to read this until you do. But before you go, the bottom line is Passengers is a wonderful film, and you should watch it. If you’re interested, don’t be like me and let the critics dissuade you.

My take

In the first part of the film, we find the ship, Avalon, hurtling through space toward a new world. The crew of about 250 and the civilian passengers of 5,000 are asleep and supposed to sleep for another 90 years when the ship encounters a cluster of debris and asteroids. It’s okay, though! The Avalon has a shield to deflect such space junk!

As you can guess, there’s a particularly large asteroid that the shield reduces to chunks, but one of those chunks gets through and damages the ship. Jim, played by Chris Pratt, wakes up as a result, and he wanders the Avalon, looking for others, but he’s particularly slow to understand he’s the only one awake.

Forgive him. He just woke up after a 30-year nap.

But wait. The trailers showed Jennifer Lawrence and said she and Chris Pratt wake up together. What happened!?

Nope. Marketing duped you like it did everyone. Only Jim wakes up, and for the first half of the film, we watch him descend into madness from the loneliness of having plenty of humans nearby but never being able to contact them.

Or can he? One day, after he almost airlocks himself, he stumbles upon Aurora, asleep in her pod, and like catching someone in a crowd, it’s something like love at first sight. For months, he learns about her, reading everything she’d ever written (she’s a journalist), watching her candidacy interviews, simply eating breakfast beside her, and it becomes clear he’s going to wake her up. Even to Jim, it’s clear he’s going to wake her up. And that is awful.

This is where everyone seems to get hung up, and I think it’s unfair because the film does a good job of addressing it. More on that in a moment.

From here, Jim knows what he did. And the film progresses as you expect (Passengers is not really going to surprise you on its own merits). Jim and Aurora fall in love. Also as you’d expect, Aurora discovers Jim woke her up, and as you’d expect from a character played by Jennifer Lawrence, she gets pissed, and it seems they’re never going to get beyond it, which pretty well makes sense. For the next 88 years or so, it seems they’re doomed to hate each other.

But in a bit of dramatic irony, the audience knows the ship is breaking down. Jim suspects it, but we don’t find out the full measure of the problem until a crewmember wakes up. His name is Gus, and he’s played by Lawrence Fishburne.

Transparently, Gus is a bit of a literary device. He furthers the plot to allow Jim and Aurora to access the bridge, and he helps them understand the damage the ship has sustained and that they’re on a clock before it fails catastrophically. They have to fix the damage, but guess what. Gus is dying.

Whatever. It’s not graceful storytelling, but it works.

Gus dies, and Jim and Aurora need to cooperate to fix the ship because there are 5,000 people on board. Also, and this is important, they realize they don’t want to die. In the face of imminent death, they begin to see what they have is better than nothing. Yes, neither of them planned this. Arguably, not even Jim planned to wake Aurora up (he fought it for four months, but facing a lifetime alone, of course he did because of course he would, and so would you). But they don’t want to die, and creepy space-kidnapping aside, they do have legitimate feelings for each other (Aurora loves Jim legitimately, not because of space Stockholm Syndrome as some critics suggest).

From here, the film progresses as you expect. They fix the problem. It requires Jim to sacrifice his life, potentially leaving Aurora alone. She saves him. They fall in love again. Jim discovers a way to put Aurora back to sleep and offers her a choice. She chooses to stay awake with him on the ship, and they live happily ever after until they die before the rest of the crew and passengers wake up.

There are a lot of problems with this ending, but you know what? It’s satisfying. It’s the right ending. If you come into this film not liking Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, and if after watching the misery of space life alone, you don’t root for them to find happiness, you’re dead inside, and yes, I just put an if/then statement inside an if/then statement. I can do that because I’m an Englishing professional. Don’t try it at home.

I have three rules for a good ending. It must be logical, meaningful, and satisfying. This ending checks all three of those boxes, and while it isn’t shocking or surprising, we artists have to come to the understanding that shocking or surprising endings with plot twists you could or couldn’t see coming don’t define a good ending. Certainly, they’re legitimate, but there’s nothing wrong with a story that wraps up the way you expect it to or the way you want it to, especially if that ending is logical, meaningful, and satisfying.

Knowing the criticism of Passengers, I hesitate to say I loved it, but screw it. I loved it. That criticism dissuaded me from seeing this film in the theaters, and now I regret it. If you take nothing else from this blog entry, take that: forget the critics and haters. If a film looks interesting to you, watch it. If you’re excited enough to want to pay for a stupidly overpriced theater ticket, do it. Yeah, you’ll regret it from time to time, but if you’re like me, you’ll also regret not seeing films you love when they were in theaters.

Where the critics went wrong

Seriously, critics can go suck an egg. With exceptions, they are generally awful, and I can go down a rabbit hole of arguments against them, but generally it goes like this: critics bring too much personal baggage to films, as do general audiences. I feel it’s important for critics to recognize that baggage, own it, and set it aside in an effort to maintain objectivity. There are some critics who can do this and evaluate films fairly, but the majority of them analyze films on unfair standards and criteria that clearly aren’t in their subject’s purview.

Case in point, critics apparently expected and wanted Passengers to be a Chris Pratt/Jennifer Lawrence space dramedy, and it isn’t. It’s much more than that. It’s a deep and meaningful film that also happens to be thrilling and pleasant to watch.

It’s a wacky double-standard we hold films to. Critics shouldn’t hold it against a film when it isn’t what marketing suggests it is.  We don’t want trailers to reveal anything, but we want them to give us enough to get us excited. In a film like Passengers, where the storyline takes a dramatic turn in the first act, how is that supposed to work?

With regard to the hangup people have on Jim’s decision to wake Aurora up and how creepy and horrible that is, yes, it’s absolutely creepy and horrible, and that’s the point. Jim is unwell after a year alone on a spaceship, and the film not only borders on self-referential territory, acknowledging how awful his decision is and his inability to not wake her up, but it spends a significant portion of the story to address what that action means and how these characters deal with it.

Critics are wrong about this. I’ve read criticisms about Passengers simply moving beyond this action as if it’s not a big deal, and those criticisms are so unfair and factually incorrect that I wonder if those viewers stepped away after Jim wakes Aurora up.

For about the first third of the film, Jim wrestles with it. He knows it’s awful to wake Aurora up. But he can’t help himself (and for those of you thinking you could, whatever), and after he wakes her up, Pratt’s performance (which is notably complex and compelling for him, by the way) makes it apparent that he gets it. He’s done an awful thing. He’s basically murdered someone, as Aurora puts it, and he knows that.

For the next third of the film, Jim tries to ignore his guilt and live with it. Maybe this is where people get hung up. Sure, he’s being selfish, but remember: Jim is not well. He has been alone in space for more than a year.

When Aurora learns what Jim did, the film then moves it to the forefront, and that’s all it’s about for the remainder of the story. I’m not sure where this criticism comes from that Passengers just shrugs what Jim does off, because it is the entire point of the film. There is nothing, no story element, motif, or theme, more important in Passengers than this. And the film deals with it in interesting ways.

Beyond that issue, Aurora gets her revenge. Certainly, she gets to pummel the hell out of Jim one night as she sneaks into his bedroom while he’s asleep. But in the film’s climax, she literally gets to hit him with a cosmic-sized flame thrower and launch him into space. She murders Jim back. He’s going to die.

And then Aurora decides to save him, and she does.

This whole notion that what Jim does is abhorrent and the film fails to deal with it because Jim and Aurora end up happy together is utterly ludicrous.

From a procedural angle, I also wonder if some viewers have trouble understanding and empathizing with these characters because Passengers has a pretty funky passage of time. We jump from scene to scene, but often, these jumps follow days, weeks, or months, and that isn’t really evident. Over the course of this two-hour movie, two years pass, and I wonder if the disconnect there makes it difficult for some viewers to understand the mental and emotional states of these marooned people.

Morally, the film asks the viewer, how long could you last in space alone before you gave in to the temptation of waking someone else up? For Jim, it was one year and three weeks. For the viewer, it’s about twenty minutes. Of course that’s going to be difficult to rectify, but no one’s going to want to watch two hours of Chris Pratt descending into madness. Anyway, that wasn’t the story Passengers set out to tell.

All things considered, I don’t know why Passengers was critically panned. If it’s because the film took a risk in exploring a controversial subject, I think that’s artistically unjust. Good stories need to push controversy and risk turning audiences away, and audiences need to respect when films take risks and exercise tolerance.

I think critics who panned it were entirely unreasonable and did not do their duty in explaining to audiences why it might resonate. They instead attacked it with their own emotional baggage and didn’t grant it the consideration it deserves.

Watch Passengers with an open mind. It will crush you, endear you, crush you again, and then endear you finally. It’s a great film.