Passengers: Shouldn’t be Marketed as a Sci-Fi/Romance if It’s Gonna Be This Creepy

Two people's faces, above an image of a ship in space. The words read "Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Passengers."
Image: Sony Pictures

Genre: Sci-fi/Romance

Synopsis: Jim and Aurora are passengers on a starship, kept in stasis inside hibernation pods during the journey. When they arrive at their destination, a good century would have passed, and they’d have reached a distant world. Except they wake up too early. 90 years too early. Without the ability to put themselves back to sleep, they’re looking at the rest of their lives spent alone, aboard the ship…

Knowing they’ll never reach their destination.

Verdict: Has some cool and interesting ideas, but I don’t like it as a romance.

I was not expecting this movie to be so creepy.

Okay, here’s the thing. Jim wakes up first, due to a malfunction on the hibernation pods. This isn’t supposed to happen–supposedly, similar trips have been taken countless times, and something like this has never happened before. As such, there’s nothing and no one to put him back to sleep. And he faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life alone, on a ship with thousands of people who won’t wake until he’s dead.

It’s realistic for him to fixate on one of the passengers still asleep–a pretty woman about a decade younger than him, who left behind interviews and writing through which he could get to know something about her. This means he has the equivalent of a celebrity crush, while she’s completely unaware of his existence. Except because of his isolation, his feelings grow into obsession. It’s stalkerish, and morally questionable, but realistic.

I actually appreciate the dark turn the movie takes, where Jim wakes up the passenger he’s become fixated with, even knowing that it’s wrong, just so he wouldn’t be alone. (Or I would appreciate it, if the end-goal wasn’t to make him a romantic hero, but rather Aurora the heroine who escapes a creepy and manipulative relationship.)

Naturally, he’s nothing but a stranger to her, when she wakes up–not knowing he’s responsible for her predicament. It makes sense that they spend time together, because there’s literally no one else there. It even makes sense that they date–though I do want to point out, she could just as easily have not been interested and willing to remain celibate rather than date someone she wasn’t into.

The truth is, it can’t be anything other than creepy, the way that he chose her–or at least the idea of her–while she only had the choice of whether or not to be with anyone at all. He was her only option if she wanted romance or physical intimacy. 

Once she finally finds out, he (in his creepy cluelessness) actually tells her that he fell in love with her before she’d ever met him, over a loudspeaker she can’t choose not to hear. Dude, that’s invasive. Her frantic shouting of “I don’t care!” back at him is the perfect reaction.

But then it turns back into a romance, which is when it becomes pretty uncomfortable.

Okay, sure, what Jim did was understandable. That doesn’t make it forgivable. As such, I’m personally not okay with them diving back into a romantic relationship–certainly not immediately after she starts losing her anger. They are still essentially trapped together with no one else in sight. That means I’d understand it if she decided to be friends with him, because there’s no one else. I’d also understand it if she still cared about him. Maybe, years down the line, I might possibly understand it if she decided to be with him again–but only because she literally has no other options if she wants to be with anyone at all (and assuming she doesn’t take up his offer of going back to sleep). Even then, I wouldn’t like it.

I can’t help it. He creeps me out. The way he fixated on her before ever even meeting her creeps me out. I’d rather have had him find out that she wasn’t the person he created for himself in his head, before she woke up. Or that she just plain didn’t want him. But those things never happened. 

The movie does point out, early on, how immoral Jim’s actions are. But it doesn’t point out all of the flaws in his logic, in waking up a woman he knew didn’t really know, and expecting her to be his perfect girlfriend. Instead, it chooses to vindicate him on that score. I have a hard time buying that–and stomaching it.

And here’s the thing: the extenuating circumstances that allow me to understand why Aurora might forgive but not forget what Jim did, at least enough to be civil or friendly with him, are created by the plot. The plot forces it to be just the two of them. The plot forces only two pods to malfunction, and only one of the people in those pods to survive.

The movie didn’t have to create this creepy situation. But it did. It bent over backwards to make that happen.

Other than that, the early scenes demonstrated a decent but not exceptional evocation of loneliness and hopelessness, when Jim was still alone. Those things can be pretty hard to show, and Passengers handled it well enough, though it’s been done better. The late scenes and the climax were okay, but again, not exceptional. Overall, it was a well-paced, easy-to-watch movie that was generally enjoyable except for the uncomfortable stuff. 

My favorite parts were:

  • The robot bartender. He rocked.
  • Jennifer Lawrence’s acting.
  • The dark turn where Jim is driven to wake up Aurora–with the caveat that I hated the ensuing romance.  

Brief science impression

Maybe the the movie’s whole ‘these pods can’t malfunction’ nonsense is a parallel to the Titanic being considered unsinkable. But even the Titanic had lifeboats. So if the ship in this move was supposed to be the Titanic, it really should have had at least some spare hibernation pods. Maybe not enough for everyone, but certainly enough for Jim and Aurora. 

It’s incredibly hard to imagine a future where engineers deny the existence of malfunctions, especially over a hundred years of space travel. Alright, so this kind of voyage has happened multiple times without problems, making it as common as driving cars or flying airplanes. Guess what? Cars break, and airplanes crash.

It would have made a lot more sense if there were contingencies in place for something like this, but none of them worked–same result on the plot, but much more realistic (and a good fit for the drama of the early scenes, giving hope right before snatching it away).

My guess is, the people who made this movie probably don’t care. But it does matter, because it creates our expectations for the world around us. By having a malfunction, which should be a common occurrence, treated it like it’s inconceivable–that creates the expectation that technology and science should work as perfectly in practice as they’re envisioned in theory. Every single small instance when this happens in media or public discussion, again and again, adds to that idea. And it widens the gap in understanding between people who work in the STEM fields and those who don’t. The consequences of this aren’t all on one movie, of course, but it’s something we should probably think about more than we do.

I thought Mass Effect: Andromeda did a better job with these realities–in this sci-fi game where colonists are transported to distant planets, not everyone put into cryo stasis even survives it.

Favorite Quotes:

“These are not robot questions.”