This review contains mild spoilers and then some major ones. Stop at the warning if you have not seen the movie.
Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Aurora Lane and Chris Pratt as James Preston, is a pleasing blend of genres that, while perhaps no threat to the throne of the king of science fiction movies, is yet an entertaining tale that does everything a good story needs to do and even a little bit more. I have not seen a better movie this year and recommend the reader visit the theaters to properly appreciate it on the big screen.
James Preston, a lowly and impecunious mechanic, is a passenger on an interstellar journey along with 5,000 other passengers, bound for a colony on a world dozens of light years from Earth. The ship, moving at about half the speed of light, will take 120 years to reach its destination, so the crew and passengers have been put into suspended animation, from which they will awaken, unaged, when they are four months out from their new world.
James is awakened and, as the grogginess of sleep fades, comes to realize he is the only one who has woken up. His rising panic is only momentarily relieved when he runs into a bartender, but the bartender turns out to be a robot with less than perfect artificial intelligence. Preston is alone, and when the delights of the luxury liner become old hat, he grows lonely and increasingly desperate.
His desperation climaxes with him standing at an airlock, quite without a spacesuit, his finger on the button that will open the door and expel him into outer space. An excruciating minute drags by but he fails to summon the moment’s nerve to end his torment, and instead turns to the bio of a fellow passenger, author Aurora Lane, and gets to know her. He reads her work and listens to her interviews while he sits by her hibernation pod. His fixation grows until temptation wins and he wakes her up from her suspended animation.
One important function science fiction has is to present us with new scenarios to grapple with, and the moral dilemma which Preston faces, and fails, is nothing any human has ever had to face before. No younger sibling, terrified by a nightmare and wondering how much big brother would mind being woken up to give comfort, ever faced the millionth part of the moral quandary James Preston finds himself in. For the libertarian it is clear that Preston has violated Lane’s rights, though what to do about it and what retribution and restitution is due to Lane could be a matter of some interesting debate. Interesting and worthwhile, because something like this scenario could well be in store for our descendants.
The momentous decision Preston faces draws us into the story, and so does the scenario itself: a man on an interstellar luxury liner, at first with all its accommodations to himself and later with a bit of company for which many men might be willing to forsake society to have to themselves. The ultimate sign of a movie having engaged its audience is that audience imagining themselves as one of the characters, or at least as being in the story. I was definitely on that ship with Mr. Pratt. Furthermore, the characters are appealing. While the storytellers do not delve into them quite like Shakespeare explored Hamlet, they nevertheless gain our sympathy, and quickly, mostly due to the charismatic actors who portray them.
It more than piques my curiosity, then, to discover that this movie with its captivating scenario, compelling actors and perfectly competent craftsmanship is getting the cold shoulder by movie critics. A movie like Vertigo can understandably fail to connect with an audience who, years later, will come to adore it, but Passengers is filmed in a pretty standard fashion, with the language of cinema we all have come to know and without the hint of a strange accent, as one might expect from an independent film helmed by a misunderstood genius. A brief investigation as to why such a fine movie should be so underappreciated revealed the stench of feminism emanating from many of the complaints.
It is possible that conventional moviegoers could be put off by the blending of genres – because Passengers is both a science fiction tale and a love story of sorts – while edgier cinephiles might not care for the orthodox filming style, but this does not constitute the entire explanation. Many of the complaints flying around the Internet characterize Pratt’s role as a sexual predator. Lawrence’s Aurora Lane also comes under fire for the way, unacceptable by feminist standards, that she responds to him.
***SPOILERS*** IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE, READING THE NEXT SECTION WILL RUIN IT. RESIST THE TEMPTATION AND SKIP AHEAD TO THE END.
The charge that Preston is a sexual predator is a product of the hysterical times in which Passengers was released. In these days when feminists are convinced that one in four girls are raped while at college, that a single drop of alcohol renders a woman incapable of giving consent – though not the man, because, you know, equality – that saying hello to a woman on the street constitutes harassment, we should not be surprised that James Preston stands accused of sexual predation in a feminist Star Chamber for the crime of having a sexual relationship with a woman he awakened from hibernation. The stupidity of this should be easy for any non-feminist to see.
A sexual predator would not have waited over a year to wake a beautiful young woman from suspended animation, would not have agonized over the decision, and would not have stopped at just one. If I were a conscienceless man on board such a ship and found myself awake with nothing to do for the rest of my life, you can bet I would have myself a harem of beautiful women who might wonder at the odds that only one man came out of hibernation, but who would never be told the truth. James Preston awakens only one woman, and that only after becoming suicidal at the prospect of a life of absolute loneliness.
The complaints about Aurora Lane are just as silly. When she finds out the truth, she is angry with Preston, and understandably so. She breaks off their relationship and refuses to speak to him. But when things go wrong with the ship and Preston must put himself in danger to save them all, Aurora tells him to come back to her, because she cannot face the ship alone for the rest of her life.
To understand is to forgive, and in that moment Aurora understands what Preston did and forgives him. It would take the cold heart of a feminist not to. Perhaps a feminist will be disappointed at the reaction the heroine has, but a regular person will see the shades of gray which zealots can never seem to recognize.
***END OF SPOILERS***
The sympathetic characters and interesting scenario are bolstered by wonderful sets and special effects that make many frames tiny works of art. Everything works together to imbue that sense of wonder that comes from science fiction at its best, and that magic which comes from our favorite works of film. While the director is not a consummate master and occasionally misses opportunities with the way he handles sequences, there is very little to complain about. I went happily along for the ride with characters I plan to visit again, and at the end a song by Imagine Dragons ushers one out the door with a spring in one’s step, music which perfectly captures the feel of the bitter sweetness of the film. Even now, as I type these words, the vapors of that movie’s enchantment swirl in my head to that same tune. I think I shall not listen to another song until they finally, inevitably fade away.