Notes on the deeply discomforting Passengers

Spoilers ahead.

I haven’t had time to write a full review of this as I only saw it not 12 hours ago, but I can’t help but jot down something about Passengers’ unpleasant undercurrent. Rewatching the trailers and marketing material, I couldn’t believe how misleading they were about something very important to the film’s core premise:

Only Chris Pratt’s Jim woke up early due to a malfunction on the ship. The first solid half hour is him moping about the Avalon starship, passing a year’s worth of time. During this time he stumbles upon Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora and seeing her hot unconscious bod decides to look into her files. He discovers she is a writer and he reads her work, later claiming to have fallen in love with her through doing so.

So after all this time with only a robot bartender to talk to (the illogic of the ship’s environment/infrastructure is absolutely wild), he gets lonely so he decides to wake up the unconscious woman he’s been projecting feelings on to. Against her will, he takes her out of hibernation 89 years before reaching their destination and then brazenly lies about it to her face just because he wants to fuck her. He is, essentially, gaslighting her. (EDIT: Miriam Bale pointed out to me, correctly, that it isn’t gaslighting at all. But given what’s at stake it has the feeling of manipulation on that level in the moment, and in Aurora’s response, as discussed below. My error as I was writing this on the fly.)

Naturally, the film insists on their soulmate status, and they happily court and bone until Aurora eventually learns the truth. But not from Jim! The escalating malfunctions aboard the ship seemingly affect the robot bartender who lets it slip to Aurora that Jim deliberated for months before deciding to effectively take control of her life.

Aurora is livid and betrayed, and it’s during this and only this stretch that Passengers is an interesting film. She storms into his room while he’s asleep and punches and kicks him, she’s that angry. It’s fascinating and dark, except for the fact that the film seems to treat her anger as an aberration, an overreaction. Laurence Fishburne’s character figures out the situation after he too is brought out of hibernation, and his response is to say, roughly, “I was going to say you’re a lucky son of a bitch to get stuck with Aurora. But…damn.” The film, otherwise, never really interrogates this creeper behaviour on any real level. She is object of desire before all else. It’s at this point that the larger concern of the ship’s deterioration takes over the narrative.

We learn that the ship would’ve eventually completely malfunctioned anyway and they all would have died, therefore arguing away Aurora’s fury on her behalf. This forces them back together, because of course it does. Throughout this Jim looks at her with puppy dog eyes and apologises over and over, as though we’re supposed to feel sorry for him in all of this. For making a simple error, instead of stealing a woman’s agency over her body and her life away from her. The film’s score pushes their romance so hard, and the shift in the middle act when they are apart is notable, as though the tragedy is their lost romance more than anything else.

It becomes so hard to invest in the film in any way after that point because it’s so unnecessary as a story choice. Nothing that happens in the broader narrative required this to be the case other than to create what I’m sure Jon Spaihts thought was tension as opposed to a romanticisation of abusive behaviour. You would also think Pratt and Lawrence would know better, or that someone working on this in development – though it’s been in hell for years – might step forward with a finger raised and say, “Are we sure this is a good idea?”

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