‘Passengers’ Writer and Director Address the Controversial Premise, So It’s All Good Now (It’s Not)
By now, you’ve probably heard about the not-quite-twist at the center of this month’s sci-fi romance Passengers. It’s gotten a lot of attention, and people aren’t happy. If you’ve only seen the trailers, you’ve seen the “Titanic in space” aspects of the film, but there’s actually a lot more to it, and not in a good way. Director Morten Tyldum and writer Jon Spaihts have finally addressed the reason why they decided to keep that one controversial plot point in the film, but it might be too little too late. If you haven’t heard anything about this, or if you’d rather go into the movie knowing as little as possible, it’d be a good idea to turn back now because there are SPOILERS ahead.
So, it begins on a spaceship with Chris Pratt’s character Jim waking up 90 years too early after his sleeping pod, which was supposed to keep him in stasis for 120 years, malfunctions. He spends a while trying to figure out how to get the pod working again, with no success, and spends a longer while bored and alone on the ship. Then, he sees the face of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, whose name is Aurora Lane (yikes), and falls in love with her after he watches all her recorded interviews on the ship’s computer. He’s so lonely that he decides to wake her up too, dooming her, like him, to an entire lifetime aboard this ship, which won’t reach its intended destination for almost another century. The worst part (yes, it gets worse!) is that he doesn’t tell her about any of this, making her think that they both woke up for some mysterious reason at the same time.
The premise is, in a word, troubling. Our Erin Whitney discusses it at length in their review, and we’ll discuss it a little more in the next episode of our Long Takes podcast coming next week, but for now, here’s what the writer and director have to say about it. When io9 asked Spaihts whether anyone had disagreed with them about the premise or asked them to change it, he replied,
Maybe. It’s not as if it’s an accidental oversight of the film, where we, through some cultural blindness, have failed to see the appalling nature of our hero’s actions. It is the subject of the film. And I think that making a movie that leaves people room to argue about what they would have done, what they could have forgiven, what they can understand or fail to understand, I think that’s great. I think that’s good storytelling. What I don’t believe the movie does is endorse or exonerate anyone. The movie looks, evenhandedly, at the dilemma everybody was in. I think putting good people in impossible circumstances makes for fascinating storytelling.
Whether the film is “evenhanded” is up for some serious debate, since it pretty manipulatively asks us to feel pity for Jim even after Aurora finds out what he’s done and calls him a murderer — which he is. Tyldum had a similar response when io9 asked whether there was any kind of discussion around how to handle the plot (more mild SPOILERS ahead for the end of the movie):
A lot. And I want that to be the conversation you have when you walk out. That is the big thing, and we didn’t want to shy away from it. It was a very conscious decision. And there’s something very human about it. It’s about forgiveness and it’s about taking an issue from a relationship and then putting it to the extreme. Him giving her the choice at the end is super important. That’s when it becomes a true love story. Love is not selfish, or is about need. It’s about the other person.
And I wanted it to be a very entertaining movie that is not shying away from these big questions. And I think that most of us, if we had the choice, would have done what Chris’s character does. We’re lying to ourselves if we’re saying that we won’t. And I think also that Jen’s character and her stance, the moment he walks out [of the ship] and may not come back, she understands that, knowing she will be alone on the ship. And she understands. She completely understands why he did that. And I think it’s a very interesting dilemma and I was very fortunate to make a movie on that scale, such a commercial movie, that has this layer of depth.
One question that wasn’t asked is, did they really have to do it this way? Why add this dilemma into the mix when you’ve already got an entertaining and interesting setup: two people awaken on a malfunctioning spaceship, doomed to live their lives within its walls and die before their destination, but tasked with keeping the rest of its sleeping occupants alive. And, sure, put some romance in there. That sounds great! Or, if they were really so enamored with the idea of having Jim selfishly wake Aurora up, go full psychological horror! Or at least address the problem in a responsible way, rather than asking the audience to do it themselves. It’s this kind of oversight that makes me want to bang my head against my desk, which would look something like this.
Tyldum and Spaihts ask us to forgive a character for dooming someone else to death out of what might be love but what’s probably boredom. Can we forgive them for asking?
Passengers is currently in theaters.