“Jim, these are not robot questions.”
Justin’s rating: Will this be the in-flight movie for futuristic spaceships?
Justin’s review: Let’s talk about something called the “moral event horizon.” Basically, it’s the line where, if a character crosses it by performing a certain action, that character — in a book, TV show, movie, whatever — can’t ever be seen as redeemable by the audience ever again. Obviously, writers who want their readers or viewers to continue to like, root for, and identify with a main character will try very hard to avoid ever having that hero cross that line.
Passengers does it in the first half-hour.
And it absolutely knows it does, too, plowing forward to see where the story goes from there. That definitely turned off a lot of people to this movie, but I actually found it really engrossing. People make mistakes, sometimes selfish, willful mistakes, and it’s important to know if they can still be redeemed and forgiven after that. So while we may hate the main character of Jim (played by Chris Pratt) in this movie for what he obviously knows is a horrible, terrible, very bad, no-good thing to do… we can see ourselves doing it, too. And we need to know that there’s a way back from that.
So let me back up and start with the movie itself. Taking place on a colony ship traveling 120 years from Earth to a new planet, Passengers starts off with an accident that triggers the revival of a single hibernation pod 90 years too early. Mechanic Jim wakes up, realizes he’s alone and can’t go back into hibernation, and faces the reality of a long life during which he will be completely alone while surrounded by thousands of sleeping people. After a year of puttering around what’s essentially an empty cruise ship, Jim spies a sleeping beauty and develops a (unhealthy) crush on her.
Gradually, a thought arises. He has the ability, as a mechanic, to wake her, to receive the companionship that he craves, all for the low, low price of taking away her future. Obviously he does, because otherwise this would be The Martian 2: Deep Space Madness. So the question is, what next? You know the secret is going to come out sooner or later — Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) isn’t completely dumb, and the rest of their lives is an awful long time to keep something hidden. She’s gonna be hecka grumpy with him, and probably deservedly so, right?
Passengers probably would’ve escaped my attention if it wasn’t for the fact that people — how shall I put this? — hated this movie. Like hate hate hated it. They felt like it took the world’s most lovable actor, Chris Pratt, and turned him into an utter creep. It took Lawrence and told her that she could pull off a very complex character arc, which she couldn’t. And it abruptly switched tone a couple of times, giving us story whiplash. Critics especially seemed to enjoy dumping all over it. So the general consensus is that what Jim did was unforgiveable, and ergo, he is irredeemable.
But as blog Bitter Script Reader writes, “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?'” One of science fiction’s traditions is to create strange scenarios and then use them to reflect and comment upon ourselves or our society. I’m totally OK with us going off the safe and predictable rails of traditional storytelling, especially in this environment.
In hindsight, probably the biggest mistake that was made was in the movie’s marketing. Expectations were set for a somewhat different story due to the trailers, and people don’t respond well to that sort of thing. However, it got people talking a lot more about it, which is why it drifted into my orbit.
Personally, I think it’s a deliciously intriguing story. This might be one of the best-looking spaceship interiors I’ve ever seen, and even if you decide to turn the sound off, you’re still in for some serious eye candy as it plows through its futuristic sets. It’s certainly hard not to imagine spending your own life on a ship like that (and thinking, hey, that wouldn’t be too bad of a life!). The human drama of Aurora and Jim also serves as a smokescreen for a plot point that develops in the background for the entirety of the first two acts, and I thought that the telltale signs for this were well-done.
And it’s hard to fault Pratt for the plot, because he does do a great job with what he’s given. You may not forgive what he does to Aurora, but you understand it and you see the hell he’s gone through in his year alone. Maybe it’s not a perfect movie, but if this wasn’t released with with such high expectations and serious star power, Passengers might’ve been a pleasant surprise to those who discovered it. As for me, I like a bit of moral complexity in my characters… and I do believe in redemption.