Passengers is a neat example of how female characters are stereotyped in Hollywood films. With only four named characters of substance, it’s not surprisingly that only one is female, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). Her role is to meet the romantic and sexual needs of the hero, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), and to provide a framework for the essential goodness and heroism of his masculinity by personifying the worst of archetypal femininity. If you plan on seeing this film, and I wouldn’t rush out to do so, perhaps read no further. I won’t give away any plot points that aren’t obvious from the outset but I will probably say enough about the characters that you have a pretty good idea of the entire film. So, spoilers.
The Starship Avalon, yes really, is on a 120 year journey to deliver 5000 emigrants from Earth to Homestead II. It is hit by a chunk of rock or two that, inexplicably, causes only one sleeping pod to open. Jim awakens and it takes him longer than you’d expect to realise he’s the only one on the automated and slickly corporate ship. Finding out there are still 90 years to go is a bit of a downer and over a year he does a Matt Damon in The Martian and rides the roller coaster of emotional optimism and despair, interspersed with attempts to break things and build things.
He has company of a sort in android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) but his platitudes and pretend humanity aren’t enough to stop Jim growing a beard and neglecting his personal hygiene. We know he’s doing it tough because he considers suicide rather than be alone; a device I suspect to excuse what he does next. Noticing by accident, seemingly, Aurora lying safely asleep in her pod and her underwear, Jim moons over her. He watches her video recordings as she talks about herself and her dreams and then ‘falls in love’.
He battles his conscience, helped not at all by Arthur who is programmed to agree, but then wakes her up anyway, condemning her to a life where she will achieve none of her own dreams but will at least make his bearable. We know this is inevitable and is the crux of the movie, its essential ‘what if?’
Up until this point, it’s not a bad movie. Pratt is likeable and funny, the scenario is intriguing – like being the only survivor of an apocalypse but in a luxury hotel. The problem is Aurora’s lack of agency and how that is portrayed. The shadowing of the classic Sleeping Beauty fairy tale is surely not coincidental. Aurora is asleep, this time of her own volition but is wakened by the handsome prince against her will. And he knows it.
What then? Is it reasonable? Should his life take precedence over hers? Does love excuse all behaviours, all coercion? The narrative clearly tells us yes with Aurora being everything he needs. She is clever, sexy, friendly and thinks he’s great. She is surprisingly unruffled at the sudden change in her life because, you know, there’s a handsome bloke who likes her.
We get to see Lawrence in a swimsuit a fair bit as she’s a big fan of swimming and the infinity horizon pool is both ludicrous and wonderful. It’s the kind of movie where the characters tell you what they are thinking and Aurora get some pretty cheesy lines. “I thought you’d never ask” and “What took you so long?”, both in response to Jim’s romantic gestures.
His mistake is in not telling her the truth about his culpability and when, inevitably, she finds out, his bearable future crumbles under the weight of her anger. She is understandably angry but she acts with such sustained vehemence in the face of his heart-felt apologies that she soon is cast as the villain. From sexy, tractable and available, she becomes irrational, hysterical, bitchy, inept and finally weepy. Sexy, tractable weepy.
Predictably, the complexity of their relationship is resolved when their lives are threatened and Aurora is forced to acknowledge Jim’s essential goodness and, more importantly, his ability to be a strong protector. All is forgiven.
There are plot holes (damage to the ship that only becomes critical two years later, some weird zero gravity stuff in the swimming pool), MacGyver science (hello again The Martian) and a ludicrous ending. Oh and Laurence Fishburne provides racial diversity in a blink and you’ll miss him part.
What disappointed me most was the perpetuation of the myth that coercing someone in a relationship, particularly where it damages their life, is excused by protestations of love. This is domestic violence masquerading as a fairy tale.
Have you seen this film? Did you make it through to the end? Tell me what you thought in the comments below.