Monday, 30 January 2017

Passengers Should Have Been Brave Enough To Explore Its Dark Premise


Imagine the scenario: your high-tech hibernation pod on the spaceship you're travelling in to colonize a far flung planet has popped open 90 years too early because of a technical malfunction. Faced with the knowledge that you will be long dead when everyone else wakes up, what do you do? According to Passengers, the answer is "doom a beautiful woman to the same fate and lie about the fact that said fate was in fact your choice. Fall in love with her then stalk her across the ship when she discovers the truth and wants nothing to do with you."

In another world, this would be the perfect setup for an exciting thriller with feminist undertones about men's entitlement to women's bodies. But if you can believe it, Passengers is meant to be a story of true love, forged in the fires of intergalactic peril.

No, I'm not kidding.

Other critics have noted the sinister undercurrent of the film's very premise, but the problem with Passengers is that it tried to have its cake and eat it too. Either you're making a film about unconscionable behavior in the vast emptiness of space, or you're making a romance drama about two people effectively lost to time who find love. It takes a level of skill that this film lacks to blend the two successfully.


In Passengers, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakens on the Avalon to discover that he is the only passenger of 5,000 not still in hibernation, and that the ship's journey to the planet Homestead II won't be complete for another 90 years. After a year of social isolation with the android bartender Arthur (Martin Sheen) as his only companion, he contemplates suicide. Instead he discovers the pod of writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and becomes mildly obsessed with her; a strange if understandable development given his circumstances. He uses the ship's archives to find Aurora's entry interviews and spends months reading her articles and learning about her, eventually coming to the conclusion that he'd like to meet her. He then manually opens her pod and pretends it was a malfunction. A year later, on the night Jim has decided to propose, Arthur lets slip that Jim intentionally opened Aurora's pod believing that Jim had already confessed. Aurora is enraged and actively avoids Jim now that she knows the truth. Another malfunction leads to a crew member's pod opening early (Laurence Fishburne) and together the three discover several technical issues with the ship. Chief Gus Mancuso's health is failing however, and he soon dies. Together Jim and Aurora save the ship from exploding and save the lives of the other passengers. After the immediate danger has passed, Jim tells Aurora that the treatment pod in the medical bay can be used as a makeshift hibernation pod to put her back to sleep. Naturally, there is only one pod. 88 years later, the remaining passengers awake on schedule to discover that Aurora chose to live out her days with Jim, leaving behind a novel she has written about their experiences for them to find.

Watching the film, it's clear the devil is in the details. It's the small interactions and decisions that make the ending of this film so repulsive to so many. When Aurora initially wakes up, we see her move through the same stages of grief that Jim did earlier in the film as the reality of her situation settles in. Her grand plan to be the first person to come back to earth after visiting a colonized planet has been entirely derailed. She will never achieves her goals and will die on the ship without ever seeing her loved ones again. Jim tries to rush her through this stages while wracked with guilt; he knows their plight is hopeless and her naked pain tickles the part of him that should feel guilt. But rather than confessing his misdeed, he knowingly continues with his constructed fraud that they are simply unlucky lovers brought together by fate, up to and including lavish date nights. He draws Aurora into a romance knowing full well that if she had all the information, she would likely reject him.

Adding insult to injury, after Aurora discovers Jim's deception and makes concerted steps to avoid all interaction with him (including splitting custody of Arthur) Jim continues to force himself into her personal space, a ginormous feat considering they are the only conscious inhabitants of a presumably expansive ship. When she rejects him after he tries to approach her to apologize, he takes to the ship's intercom system to force her to hear him, literally making himself inescapable. It's a move reminiscent of Officer Simpson's behavior in Marvel's Jessica Jones; Jim allows his need to apologize and assuage his guilt supersede Aurora's need to be alone with her feelings about her new reality. It's nakedly abusive to harm someone and then deny them the space they need to recover.

via Rotten Tomatoes
The other most glaringly tone-deaf choice on the part of the filmmakers comes later in the film as Jim and Aurora rush to stop the ship from exploding. Due to plot machinations designed only to separate the two and reignite to their questionable love story, Jim must risk his life outside the ship while Aurora remains inside. Jim's chances of survival are slim. "You die, I die!" Aurora tearfully screams as Jim tells her he will sacrifice himself. What on earth? More like "You don't get to leave me here to die alone you motherfucker!" The ship is predictably saved and the audience is taken into the future when the remaining occupants finally awaken. Aurora tells us in voice-over that she and Jim made a wonderful life together (as evidenced by all the shit they left behind for the others to clean up) and that they should cherish the time they have. Yes, really. The sum total of the film amounts to a selfish man being sexually rewarded for his romantic obsession at the expense of an ambitious woman's hopes, dreams and sanity. Then again, perhaps that's a fitting message in the age of Trump.

Passengers is a strange film that has little self-awareness about the way it treated its female lead. The result is that a project that on the surface seemed perfectly geared to my tastes (pretty people doing pretty people things in space!) was the first disappointment of the new year. This plot needed shifting in a way that guided it towards something that resembled anything approaching acceptable behavior, or else it needed to drop the romance plot entirely. There's no reason this film couldn't have been a fantastic thriller. It could easily have resolved its most immediate issues by acknowledging the darkness inherent in its premise and leaning right into it. How do you escape a stalker when you're doomed to die right alongside him? I have no idea but I definitely want to see JLaw try to figure it out!

There will always be people who think art should be allowed to exist without context, but that's not the way the world works. Not making art that rewards men for deceiving women in order to gain sexual access to them is a low bar to clear in the year of our Lord Beyoncé A.L. 2017. Do better.

I missed my chance to see Rogue One for this?

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