Every now and then I see a film get a reaction that makes me wonder if I saw the same movie as the rest of the audience. When OBLIVION came out, it was so aggressively panned that I waited until DVD to view it, upon which I discovered a very entertaining, well-made sci-fi film. Slightly more recently, I felt that the aggressive hate for TOMORROWLAND felt quite out of proportion to the mildly disappointing but still interesting film.
And then there's PASSENGERS. Last weekend, it felt like you couldn't swing a dead cat on the internet without hitting someone ready to tell you that the premise was creepy, or that the film was sexist, or that the ethics of the film were appalling.
In a nutshell, here's the premise of the script by Jon Spaihts: Jim is one of 5000 passengers in cryo-sleep for a 120-year voyage to a new colony planet. Due to a completely unprecedented malfunction, his chamber wakes him after 30 years, making him the only person set to be awake for 90 years. He can't go back to sleep and though the ship is programmed to tend to his needs, his only companion is a robot bartender. In other words, he's facing the prospect of never having human contact for the rest of his life.
This is tantamount to solitary confinement, a practice that many psychologists consider inhumane. This article from Gizmodo calls it "the worst kind of psychological torture" and in fact, "solitary confinement beyond 15 days leads directly to severe and
irreversible psychological harm. But for some, it can manifest in even
less time." We need to take this into consideration and then note that Jim spends an entire YEAR alone on the ship before he comes very close to attempting suicide.
Human beings are social creatures and without that interaction, Jim is trapped in hell. However, he's tech-savvy enough that he knows how to wake up someone else. Company would go a long way to relieving his pain, but there are other ethical concerns. Jim discusses this with his bartender, likening it to being trapped forever on an island, but having the power to transport one person there, knowing that you were ruining their life.
This one interaction alone shows that the film is aware of the ethics behind Jim's predicament. By questioning it in such a way, I don't understand how anyone could come away from the film thinking the movie sees what Jim does as pure. It's largely about the question of if you could make your personal Hell more bearable by condemning someone else to join you. He ultimately awakens the beautiful Aurora, leading her to believe another malfunction is to blame for her state.
Where many of the critics seem to miss the mark is where they equate Jim's actions with a violation of sexual consent. I think it's offensive to actual rape victims to equate anything in this film with sexual assault. To me, what Jim does is not about sex so much as it's about human contact. He needs a companion ship that isn't necessarily sexual. Sure, the water is muddied because the two DO fall for each other and there's no lack of sex appeal on the part of Aurora's portrayer, Jennifer Lawrence.
If Jim had woken up a man, someone who he felt would be his Number One Bro, would we still be having this debate? PASSENGERS seems most interested in the morality behind alleviating your pain by sharing it with someone else. I don't even know if I'd necessarily argue that the film comes down on the side of it being right, but it DOES depict how a desperate person might come to believe this is the only course of action available to them.
Seriously, could YOU face the prospect of 90 years alone on a ship? How far would you have to be pushed before you convinced yourself you HAD to have human contact? And once you arranged that, would you really be forthright with the fact that you caused the malfunction? Jim certainly makes selfish choices, but they're selfish choices in the midst of an incredibly painful experience. I also don't believe you have to choose between being sympathetic to Jim and sympathetic to Aurora.
Aurora rightly is furious when she learns Jim engineered her awakening. "You MURDERED me!" she screams, more than once. The blossoming romance is immediately dead, and she begins a period of shutting him out. At this point, I thought the film might explore her isolation as a way of depicting what her loneliness might drive her to. This path could lead her to understanding Jim's horrible decision, even as it isn't necessary for her to condone it.
Instead, the third act brings Jim and Aurora together to resolve the increasing malfunctions of ship's systems. It turns out that an asteroid impact is to blame for the damage that shut down Jim's pod and that the other damage it caused has built up into a reactor malfunction that will destroy the ship. To save everyone, Jim has to go outside the ship and open a door manually so Aurora can vent the reactor while he's stuck in the path of the radiation. It means certain death, and indeed, he takes the direct blast with only a small shield to deflect it. Though Jim told her not to come for him, Aurora dons a spacesuit of her own and risks her life to bring him back, where he is resuscitated.
There's some criticism that the third-act crisis is a convenient way to let Jim off the hook. If he hadn't woken her, then there would have been no one else to help him save the ship and the entire crew. Aurora is presented with a situation where she can say, "If he hadn't woken me, I'd be dead."
This would be a more fair criticism if the film embraced it. I believe it does not. A couple points to recall:
- As the crisis reaches its peak, Aurora suggests waking some of the crew. There's no hesitation on her part, even though this means they would share her fate on the 90-year voyage. In the context of this moment, doing so would directly save 5000 people as well as herself, so yes, there is a "needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few" scenario. But she's not without self-interest here either. Remember too, that Jim would have died had he not acted to preserve his own sanity.
- Aurora goes against Jim's wishes when she risks herself to save him. Jim is content to die saving everyone else. Is her motivation romantic? I don't think it necessarily has to be, and the film allows for the interpretation that it's not. Aurora surely knows all the details of Jim's horrible year alone and what being that alone did to him. If Jim dies, this is the fate she's facing - the total abyss of loneliness for the rest of her life. Is risking herself for him a purely selfless act? Or is it one she willingly takes because it would be better to die quickly than in the lingering slow torture Jim endured?
Taking those together, I don't think we can discount that Aurora comes to understand what pushed Jim to awaken her. She's stared that same fate in the eye and it gives her what she needs to accept his choice. The ending is not about letting Jim off the hook so much as it's about pushing Aurora to her limits. In the end, she needs companionship just as much as Jim did. This is why I feel that even if there had not been an immediate crisis, Aurora would have eventually thawed things with Jim. Whether that came as a result of madness, Stockholm Syndrome or genuine empathy is a matter of debate.
Moreover, this is easier to see if you're not determined to equate Jim with being a "stalker." He's not a calculating and manipulative predator. 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?"
It disturbs me that we see art being attacked for merely exploring complex scenarios like this. Back when Indecent Proposal was made, did people think that just by making the film, the creators were advocating that a married woman sleep with a billionaire for one million dollars? If we discourage art that asks uncomfortable questions or explores moral grey areas, what will be left with? You can be uncomfortable with Jim does and still acknowledge that the film doesn't endorse it by building drama around it.
Passengers is the story of a man pushed to his moral limits. The more I examine it, the more I suspect the film is rejected out of hand by viewers uncomfortable contemplating what they would truly do in Jim's shoes.
Bonus: I wrote an article for Film School Rejects in which I worked out how Jim and Aurora could have used the functioning medical pod at the end of the film to take turns sleeping long enough for both of them to make it to the colony within their lifespans. You can find it here.
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