Mild Spoilers Ahead.
There is a complicated and troubling moral dilemma that Morten Tyldum’s Passengers uses as a crucial narrative device but Tyldum and his screenwriter Jon Spaihts aren’t willing to accomodate the consideration that dilemma demands. A decision is made by one of the characters during the first act of the film that would, were it made in regular circumstances, undoubtedly cross an ethical threshold. That the choice could never be made in regular circumstances – no circumstance that a contemporary cinema audience could ever relate to – further convolutes that choice, and the circumstance in which it is made.
Nothing is regular about the circumstances in Passengers, but the characters are regular people and Tyldum wants to say something about love, one of the most regular themes in cinema. But by having this character make this decision and then not addressing it appropriately, Tyldum has not only inadvertently made one of the most uncomfortable love stories in recent memory but also missed a wonderful opportunity to create the thoughtful science fiction that Passengers perhaps ought to have been.
The starship Avalon is hurtling through space, travelling at one-half the speed of light and carrying 5,000 colonist to the planet of Homestead II. It’s a 120 year journey from Earth to Homestead II, but 90 years before the ship is due to reach its destination, a meteor too large for the Avalon’s shields collides with the ship. One of the hibernation pods malfunctions and Jim (Chris Pratt) finds himself alive, awake and alone.
Luckily, Jim is a mechanic, and has the professional and mental aptitude to search for and exhaust every possibility at hand to put him back into hibernation (although, as one of the spaceship’s third-class passengers, Jim’s almost unlimited ship access stretches credulity somewhat). Unluckily, those possibilities are ultimately nonexistent, which is an astonishing act of negligence for the company behind the Homestead II colonisation, which we are at one point informed are the most financially successful corporation in the world.
Jim robs Aurora of her life and condemns her to spend the rest of it with him but he’s also not nearly as unsympathetic as a number of existing reviews have suggested. Who are any of us to say that we wouldn’t also be incapable of spending life alone an enormous, sterile spaceship in the emptiness of space when the face of a beautiful, hibernating woman is a mere awakening away? It’s a complicated concept and it’s dire situation and if Tyldum had pursued any of the fascinating avenues that the scenario arouses then Passengers would be more than the aesthetically slick and texturally troubling film that it is.
Jim’s decision is a plot device in Passengers and not a central theme, because Tyldym and Spaihts either disregard or fail to notice the potential of the situation. Tyldum is more concerned with the developing relationship between Jim and the blissfully unaware Aurora, and conjuring visually grand romantic intergalactic set pieces to provide the two with a courtship that might make them forget about their appalling situation. Jim’s deceit is dealt with within the narrative, but it raises far more concerns than are allayed.
There is one scene, about halfway through the film, that recalls one of the most memorable moments from Pixar’s Wall-E, as the two central characters dangle in outer space. It’s supposed to be romantic. But in Wall-E, Wall-E hadn’t woken EVE up from hibernation and then lied to her about it in the hope that she would become a life companion. Tyldum’s romanticism can’t quite reconcile itself with Jim’s actions.