The day after Christmas, I went and saw a movie. I went in not expecting too much: interesting CGI shots, quality special effects, Christ Pratt being Christ Pratt, and a slightly cliché love story.
When you watch the trailer for Passengers, those are the things you expect. It looks like your average science-fiction thriller about a spaceship that breaks down at the tiny cast has to save it. Simple enough.
So. Is that what it was about?
Yes and no.
What’s in Passengers?
I could summarize myself, but instead I looked around and found the plot synopsis on IMdB to be more than sufficient for what I wanted to do here, so have a quote direct from them:
“The spaceship, Starship Avalon, in its 120-year voyage to a distant colony planet known as the"Homestead Colony" and transporting 5,259 people has a malfunction in two of its sleep chambers. As a result, two hibernation pods open prematurely and the two people that awoke, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Dunn (Jennifer Lawrence), are stranded on the spaceship, still 90 years from their destination.”
Sounds pretty basic right? I mean, Avalon? Homestead Colony? Hibernation pods? The only two who wake up are a boy and a girl?
We know everything that’s happening, now don’t we.
This isn’t a spoiler because you learn the exact same things from the trailer, but here’s the deal: there are cliché moments in this movie. There are your average romantic plot twists between the two characters, and there are the moments of interesting CGI and visual effects. We do receive the expected dose of scientific, space-travel mumbo-jumbo. We get everything you’d expect to get from the trailer.
The thing is… the movie doesn’t end there.
The Big Risks of Passengers
I don’t want to spoil this movie for you, so I’m going to attempt to explain what made this movie actually a good movie in a way that gives nothing away.
Basically, the directors and writers took a risk. They took the risk of alienating their cast from one of the two main characters to propel us into deep themes. One of the characters makes a choice: an awful choice, one that is driven by so much internal conflict and doubt and reluctance that the audience wants to scream at them: “DON’T DO IT” (someone in my theatre actually did…). But they do, and the consequences are hidden beneath a layer of lies.
Lies, of course, can never be kept forever. They get out eventually, and when they do… oh, the results are spectacular.
This movie took that risk. There was a chance that they would mess up, that the audience would just despise the character for making that choice, instead of realizing that… hey, we might have done the same thing in their place.
It paid off. The whole risk paid off in a way I never expected to find. It wasn’t a huge twist, because they built it up and I saw it coming, but at the same time… goodness what a thing to see coming. I didn’t see it coming walking into the theatre, or at the start of the movie, but when they started giving us hints… I begged them not to do that. That was an emotional experience I didn’t expect, but I’m so pleased that I received it.
Another big twist: this isn’t a movie about technology. Sure, there is technology and one of the characters is an android and one of the characters is an engineer. There are robots and spaceships and spacesuits and technical terms and warning sirens, but they aren’t the focus.
This is a character-driven movie set in a dying spaceship.
The Big Risks Not Taken
There are, however, moments in this movie I wished the director and writers had gone a step further. They could have, and quite easily. I, as an audience member, was willing to go to the furthest step of those moments. I wanted those sacrifices and conflicts to play out to a natural end.
Instead, we got a bit of dues ex machina and a bit of a cliché twist at the end of the climax. As a slight spoiler: death seems to be irrelevant nowadays in science fiction and it makes me mad.
The denouement was actually quite pleasing, after they got past not taking that risk, but I still felt a bit unsettled by it.
So many risks had already been taken. They took the risk of their audience hating one of their two characters. They took the risk of their audience never connecting to another character because he had such a short character arc. They too the risk of using an android as a mentor character, when computers aren’t very good at giving advice. They took the risk of using clichés to propel the best parts of the story forward.
Why not this one?
I’d experienced a rollercoaster of emotion from a movie I thought was going to be all visual effects and dramatic sound score. I was ready and willing for them to take this final risk. The risk that would tie it all together in a wonderfully emotional way.
They played it safe.
It turned out okay.
Happily ever after.
The ending wasn’t bad, because they then took another simple risk at the very end, but it wasn’t good either. This ending twist meant little to me because they’d let me down in the big moment just before.
The Power of Emotion and Risk
Was Passengers a good movie? Well… yes, I think so. It took those big risks I talked about. It fulfilled my expectations and then said “hey, look at what else I’ve got for you”.
Is Passengers worth seeing? Certainly. It’s an emotionally-grounded film. There are lessons to be learned here. Unfortunately, some of the lessons are “what not to do”s, in addition to the “what to do”s.