ROBINSON CRUSOE, EN ROUTE
In the modern, post-industrial age, it has never been easier for human beings to travel the Earth. That has not always been the case. Since the evolution of humanity into its current form 200,000 years ago, the vast majority of people have lived and died not far from where they were born. Although the earliest recorded image of a sailing vessel dates back to 5000 BCE, the era of navigation began within the last millennia. But even as explorers set out across the oceans during the Middle Ages, most men and women did not partake of such expeditions. Leisure travel among the working class dates back only about two hundred and fifty years, transoceanic sea voyages to the nineteenth century, and intercontinental air travel has developed only within the last hundred years. Today, though, people can journey across the face of our planet, from the North Pole to Antarctica, from Africa to Asia, from North and South America to Europe and Australia. It has become a small world after all.
Not so, the galaxy. The 2016 film Passengers never specifies exactly when its story takes place, but it shows space travel as a going concern—though generally not strictly as a tourist activity so much as a method of relocating large groups of people in order to allow them to establish new settlements on far-flung worlds. Still, the physical setting of the film—the starship Avalon—while sleek and stylishly futuristic, comes across as recognizable, as do the characters who populate the vessel.
Screenwriter John Spaihts opens his tale with the helical Avalon a quarter of the way through its 120-year voyage from Earth to a world called Homestead II. Corkscrewing through space on autopilot at half the speed of light, carrying 258 crew and 5,000 passengers in suspended animation, the ship encounters an asteroid field. While Avalon’s automated defensive shield easily wards off most of the interstellar debris, it has less success with a considerably larger body. The starship sustains damage, though not in a way that immediately compromises its journey. The one obvious casualty is the hibernation pod of passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), who awakens to discover himself completely alone. He determines that he has been resuscitated far too soon; the crew are scheduled for revival five months prior to the end of their journey, and the passengers a month later. With ninety years left until Avalon reaches its destination, Jim realizes that if he cannot find a means of returning himself to a suspended state, he will spend the rest of his life by himself; he will never reach Homestead II, and will instead die alone in space.
Understandably unnerved by such a prospect, Jim—an engineer by trade, though not a member of the Avalon crew—attempts to patch and reset his hibernation pod. He quickly learns that the devices, considered fail-safe, come with neither replacement components nor repair instructions. He sends a message to Earth requesting assistance, but finds that he will have to wait at least 55 years for a reply. Desperate, he explores the massive Avalon in search of another solution.
As Jim makes his way around the interstellar vessel, the audience finds out about the ship with him. The chic, automated interiors deservedly earned production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and set decorator Gene Serdena an Academy Award nomination. Avalon feels modern and commercial, beautiful and practical, realistic and the product of market research. More than anything, it resembles the science-fiction equivalent of a cruise ship in space. The vessel has an enormous and fully automated commissary; numerous restaurants staffed by robots; an infirmary with an automated diagnostic and treatment system; a computerized gaming arcade that doubles as a sports venue; and a breathtaking new version of an infinity pool, with a transparent enclosure that extends out from the hull into space. Avalon features modest accommodations for passengers of average means, like Jim, and opulent digs for the affluent. An art deco bar hosts the one concession to Jim’s solitude, an android named Arthur (Michael Sheen).
Comprising an anthropomorphic upper half supported atop a mechanical whirligig that allows him to move quickly to and fro behind the bar, Arthur provides a needed distraction for Avalon’s lone waking passenger. At the same time, those conversations do not alleviate Jim’s need for genuine human contact. A year passes, during which time he labors to face his situation head-on, to remain upbeat, and to keep himself engaged in the process of living. Still, he cannot escape the oppressive weight of unrelenting loneliness, which he understands will end only with his own death.
Chris Pratt portrays Jim Preston with an earnestness and a likeability that cultivates the audience’s empathy for him. Despite his good looks and movie-star appeal, Mr. Pratt imbues his character with an everyman quality that renders the distress of his predicament eminently apprehensible. Present-day humans have never experienced travel aboard a starship, but they know what it’s like to feel alone.
One day, while among the hibernation pods, Jim notices the dormant form of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). He plays her video profile to learn about her. When he finds out that she’s a journalist, he tracks down and reads all of her work. He quickly becomes enamored of the sleeping beauty.
Eventually, by degrees, a plan forms in Jim’s mind: to rouse Aurora from her slumber. He initially resists the impulse, understanding the indecency of such a selfish act, the callous disregard it shows for another human being. Despite the inevitability of his ultimate choice—the film stars Mr. Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence—the dilemma forms the most compelling part of the story. Jim’s predicament, juxtaposed with his ability to end his solitude while at the same time plundering the plans another person has for their own life, creates the moral crux of the tale. More than that, it dares the audience to ask the obvious question: in those circumstances, what would they do?
Jim’s eventual decision to breathe life into the old adage, “Misery loves company,” comes across as both understandable and craven. By waking Aurora, he dooms her to a fate almost as terrible as his own: she will spend the remainder of her natural life aboard Avalon, with only a single person for companionship. How will Jim deal with the guilt he feels? Will he admit to Aurora what he’s done? Will she figure it out on her own? And if she does find out, how will she react? These are interesting questions, and Passengers spends some time asking and answering them, if not in depth, then at least in an engaging fashion.
Although the moral issues are set up well, a deeper examination of them never materializes. That is especially unfortunate given that the particular circumstances of the plot would have allowed for a modern exploration of consent. When Aurora emerges from her hibernation pod to live the rest of her life aboard Avalon, Jim treats her with kindness and understanding, but by that point, he has already stripped her of her agency, condemning her to a fate he has chosen for her. Passengers does not fail as a film because it doesn’t mine this material, but in the #MeToo culture of the twenty-first-century western world, it represents a missed opportunity.
Like Mr. Pratt, Ms. Lawrence delivers a winning performance. She projects warmth and kindness, intellect and a sense of humor, vulnerability and strength. Her character of Aurora, as a writer, offers some meaningful observations not only about the plight she and Jim face, but about the very nature of the journey they have both chosen to take.
The third act, a bit too predictably, becomes a struggle for survival as the damage sustained by Avalon in its trek through the asteroid field ultimately results in a cascade of system failures throughout the ship. Director Morton Tyldum spins out the action in a compelling manner, filtering all of it through the perspectives of the protagonists. Half a dozen inflection points arise during the climactic sequence, and a change to the story at any one of those times would have allowed the film to veer in an unexpected and potentially far more dramatic direction. Nevertheless, the ending of Passengers satisfies. The film is not perfect, but it ushers the audience along on a voyage worth taking.
***⅜ (out of *****)
©2019 David R. George III