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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Passengers movie review: lost in sexist space

Passengers red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

After a few quick nods to the profoundly unethical act at its core, the movie shrugs it off and uses it as the basis for a fairy-tale romance. This is not okay.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): big science fiction fan; love Jennifer Lawrence

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence: such pretty! They’re on a spaceship traveling to a faraway planet: a fresh start! But oh noes! Their hibernation pods woke them up too early… only 30 years into a 120-year journey, or 90 years too soon. Now they are marooned in realtime while everyone else sleeps the next century away. But they have each other! They have this amazing gorgeous sleek spaceship all to themselves. (They always get a table at the automated robot-waitered sushi restaurant — hooray! Michael Sheen the android bartender always has a wink and their favorite drinks ready for them!) It’s Titanic in Space. Maybe too much like! Something is wrong with the ship, and it is sinking. In space! Still: Such romantic! Much sci-fi!

Pretty people on a spaceship traveling to a faraway planet. Such romantic! Much sci-fi!




This damn movie. They — the big They, the They who make the things we’re supposed to just accept as Entertainment and All In Good Fun — they made it so that it’s impossible to talk about this movie in any meaningful way unless you spoil it, and we — the big We, we critics, we serious film fans — are not supposed to do that. Because it’s mean. It’s bad. It’s Not Fair.

It’s almost like They knew there was a big, major, YUGE problem with their damn movietweet — probably only unconsciously, though — and arranged things this way. Shhh! Nobody tell the secret of Passengers! Don’t ruin it for everyone else! Don’t talk about The Thing!

I am going to talk about The Thing.

“When I said wear a suit to dinner, that’s not quite what I had in mind...”

“When I said wear a suit to dinner, that’s not quite what I had in mind…”tweet

First, a spoiler-free nutshell: At the heart of this story is an act of wanton moral depravity. The movie tries to frame it as a conundrum, but it is nothing of the sort: it is an instance of willful cruelty that is given great consideration before it is undertaken anyway. It is a crime of the worst kind, committed with malice aforethought. There are other issues with the film, such as the contrivances of its science-fictional concepts, which really are contrivances: when you’re inventing the science your story runs on, its quirks are not accidents but deliberate acts to twist the story in a way that need not automatically be (as would not be the case if, say, your story featured actual existing technology). But even the movie’s other flaws all serve the fundamental problem with Passengers, which is that after offering a few quick nods to the profoundly unethical act at its core, it dismisses all objections to it, shrugs it off, and turns it into a fairy tale.

And it’s all even worse than it sounds when you delve into the details.

This is your last warning: look away now if you do not want to know pretty much everything of importance that happens in Passengers.


The problem at the heart of Passengers gets even worse when you delve into the details, which are appalling.

Okay. The “twist” in Passengers is revealed toward the end of this paragraph: The Chris Pratt (The Magnificent Seven, Jurassic World) character, who is called Jim, is accidentally awakened from hibernation on the colony starship Avalon thanks to a computer glitch. This isn’t supposed to happen, it has supposedly never happened before, and there are apparently no safety fallbacks for if such a thing did happen. So Jim is alone on a spaceship meant to comfortably house more than five thousand people once they are awakened for the final few months of their voyage, and he is destined to be alone until he dies, or for 90 years, whichever comes first. There is no way to reenter hibernation. (This is one of those twisted contrivances; hibernation technology doesn’t exist, so the details of it can be whatever the writer wants it to be.) So, after being alone for a year and having found no solution for his problem, he wakes up Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: Apocalypse, Joy), so he can have some company. So there will be two people all alone on a spaceship in deepest interstellar space, cut off from the rest of humanity — there isn’t even any meaningful communication with Earth — for the rest of their lives.

Just so this is clear: Lawrence’s character does not accidentally wake up as the result of a computer glitch or any other shipboard malfunction. Jim deliberately wakes her up.

“And way over in that corner is a tiny hold marked ‘Moral Authority,’ but it’s empty...”

“And way over in that corner is a tiny hold marked ‘Moral Authority,’ but it’s empty…”tweet

Now, why her? Why doesn’t Jim wake up, say, a member of the crew, who must surely have some fix for this problem? He does try… but while the passengers’ hibernation capsules are out in the open, the crew’s are in highly secure chambers, which Jim tries his damnedest to get into, using all the tools he can find (sledgehammers, blowtorches, electronic doodads to bypass the security, etc). Jim is a mechanic, so we can presume that he makes all reasonable effort to get into the crew area. And yet, why does screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange, Prometheus) put such a barrier in Jim’s way? Why is Jim able to access the maintenance and storage areas of the ship (where he finds all the tools), which shouldn’t be open to a passenger or easily broken in to, yet not the crew area? If it has never occurred to anyone involved in this entire endeavor that passengers could accidentally wake up early — you know, before the crew wakes up — what is the purpose of securing the crew’s hibernation area this way? This isn’t like, say, securing the cockpit door on an airliner: the crew’s hibernation pods are not on the bridge or, seemingly, in any other sensitive command area. In fact, later, Jim easily gets into what should probably be the most secure area of the ship: the reactor that powers it. So this is one of those absurd contrivances: the only reason Jim can’t get at the crew is so that Jim can’t get at the crew.

Okay, but still: Why wake up Jennifer Lawrence, whose character is a journalist? Why not find an engineer with a better understanding of the ship and its systems? Why not find a doctor or a hibernation specialist? There must certainly be at least one of the latter, because Jim knows that at least one person on the ship is planning to make a return journey to Earth, which is apparently a rare thing. And even if they have the equipment and expertise on the new planet to put people into hibernation, they will surely want to have the very latest version of the technology: whatever is already on the planet (or en route on another ship) will be outdated because of the massive travel times involved.

Passengers is not Titanic in space, and it’s not a romance. It’s a horror movie, and it doesn’t even realize it.

If Jim considers such options, we do not learn of it.

So Jennifer Lawrence it is! Because she’s “the perfect woman,” as he tells Arthur the android bartender (Michael Sheen: Alice Through the Looking Glass, Far from the Madding Crowd). The colonists all seem to have detailed biographies and video interviews available in the ship’s computer, and Jim has learned all about her, and he has decided that he is in love with her and that she is the one who should keep him company for the rest of his life. Jim will wake her up and pretend like it was just random chance that left them both castaways in time, and they will fall in love and it will be magical.

And this is pretty much what happens.

You may scream now.

This is toxic Nice Guy-ism: “I’m lonely, I deserve a girlfriend, and I will get one, and she has no say in the matter.”

Passengers is not Titanic. Titanic is “You jump, I jump.” This is “I’m falling and I’m taking you with me, whether you like it or not.” This is not a romance; it’s a horror movie, and Chris Pratt is the villain. It’s Alien and Jim is the monster.

This shit is not okay.

“No, computer, I do not want to watch Alien again. Why do you keep recommending it?”

“No, computer, I do not want to watch Alien again. Stop recommending it!”tweet

Of course Aurora — Aurora; which is also Sleeping Beauty’s name; gross — of course Aurora does find out what Jim did. After she has fallen in love with him based on a lie, based on the notion he led her to believe, that they were merely two unlucky souls stuck together in a terrible situation. After she has had sex with him based on false pretenses. He has, essentially, kidnapped and raped her, and he has done that without her even realizing it. (He knows it, though.) That does not make it okay. It is horrible. And the movie does, briefly, acknowledge that. Aurora accuses Jim of murdering her, which is accurate: he has stolen from her the life she had planned, for no reason beyond his own selfishness, and with absolutely no regard for what she wants. Another computer glitch — the malfunctions on the ship are cascading — awakens crew member Gus (Laurence Fishburne: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Colony), and he also agrees that what Jim did is unacceptable. (Gus will soon die, because he is the black man in the sci-fi movie.) For a while, Aurora refuses to speak with Jim, to have any contact with him, which is doable on a ship this big. But he cannot abide this, and he uses the shipwide PA to talk to her in a way she cannot escape from. He forces her to deal with him when she does not want to, for very good reasons. This is very much not okay.

It gets worse.

The malfunctions on the ship are getting so bad that the survival of everyone onboard — including all those still asleep — is threatened. This allows Jim the opportunity to be a hero and make a noble sacrifice, which makes Aurora swoon and fall back in love with him again despite the fact that he has kidnapped, raped, and — in her own words — murdered her. (The details of the impending disaster and Jim’s noble sacrifice are not important, except that they do involve more contrivances invented solely so that the plot may move in this direction.) Aurora had previously watched a farewell video of her best friend from back on Earth in which the friend tells her “You don’t have to do something amazing to be happy,” for which the only possible translation within the context of the story is that Aurora should consider putting aside her ambitious plan to be the first journalist to travel to a colony and then return to Earth to write about it (yes, Aurora is the passenger for whom provisions will have been made to get her back into hibernation eventually) and just find happiness with a man, even if he is the man who locked her in his serial killer van in space so that he could fuck her. Why not make the best of it? Which she can do, because Passengers arranges for Jim to come back from his noble sacrifice — the contrived cherry on top of the bullshit sundae — so that he and Aurora can renew their romance.

The sound you hear is that of me barfing.

The sound you hear is that of me barfing.

And still, Passengers is not done getting worse.

Jim discovers that the “autodoc” in the ship’s medical area — you know, the sort of sci-fi machine you lie down in it, it scans you, goes beep-boop, and you’re cured of whatever ails you — is capable of putting a patient into stasis. He offers this to Aurora, to let her go back to sleep for the rest of the journey. (Of course there is only one autodoc, which doesn’t seem like enough for more than five thousand people, but the Avalon is a ship remarkably provisioned except when that would interfere with the story Spaihts is desperate to concoct.) It seems unlikely that that sort of stasis would be suitable for decades-long hibernation, or else all the passengers would already be in that sort of stasis, and that uncertainty could have been a reason for Aurora to make a decision such as this: “Okay,” she could have told Jim, “I’ll go into stasis, and you wake me up for one week every year. This way we can check to see if the stasis really is working as hibernation, and you can have some company once in a while. And I lose only a couple of years out of my life. You don’t deserve full-time company, and I’m certainly not going to fuck you during that week, but it’s more than you could possibly hope for after what you did, you miserable piece of shit. And I’ll get a bonus story out of it: The castaway who survived on a colony ship for however long you survive.”

Does Aurora say that? Of course not. She turns down Jim’s “generous” and “decent” offer so that they can live out their days together. She’s too kind, you see, to leave him all on his lonesome. So she doesn’t. And they live happily ever after.

“Oh, honey, I know you said ‘Not if you were the last man on Earth.’ But we’re not on Earth...”

“Oh, honey, I know you said ‘Not if you were the last man on Earth.’ But we’re not on Earth…”tweet

There isn’t a way this story could have ended that would have been more revolting. And yet there are easily a dozen ways to turn this basic premise into the incisive psychological thriller it wants to be, to be the movie that genuinely examines the awful human behavior at its center. (Just one: Aurora kills Jim in her rage… and then realizes how lonely she is and wakes up someone else. And the cycle begins again. Maybe the ship is littered with bodies by the time it arrives at its destination.) Instead, Passengers takes male sexual entitlement — the idea that what a man wants is more important than what a woman wants, more important than her life — and warps it into a (supposedly) charming love story. Passengers puts a sinister new Hollywood gloss on the trope of the hero “getting the girl”… whatever it takes to get her. It thinks it’s normal and even optimistic for a woman to fall in love with her kidnapper. It makes a joke out of the fact that she cannot leave him for someone else. But worse is that she doesn’t seem to want to leave him. She is ultimately happy to be have been shopped out of the frozen-food section like a microwave pizza.

This is what a Hollywood run by men gets us: creepy, rapey shit that is meant to be romantic, and is just disgusting. The director, Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game, Headhunters), is a man. The 12 credited producers (which includes screenwriter Spaihts) are all men. There was clearly no one who looked at this script — which had been on the legendary “blacklist” of supposedly great unproduced scripts for almost a decade — and said, “Wow, just no.” There was clearly no one who was capable of understanding just how profoundly wrongheadedtweet it is. It probably sounded like an awesome fantasy to them. And that is even more disturbing than anything in the movie itself. No wonder Hollywood movies about women as human beings are so rare: the men in charge think women are interchangeable with frozen pizzas.

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Passengers (2016) | directed by Morten Tyldum
US/Can release: Dec 21 2016
UK/Ire release: Dec 21 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity and action/peril
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate threat, brief injury detail, sexual activity)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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