Every relationship is bound to hit a rough patch.
That’s the incorrect idiom. It connotes terrestrial travel, wheels rolling across roads encountering uneven terrain, jostling. Passengers, the new film starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as a couple of people unjustly lost in space together who spark a romance, requires a more intergalactic turn of phrase.
Every relationship is bound to hit an asteroid field—that works—and Jim and Aurora’s is no exception. Their bump in the flight path is a touch more inconvenient than most though, since they are the only two cognizant humans on their space craft heading to a new colony some forty-five light years away. Their ship, the Avalon, is only traveling at half light speed though, so they have ninety years to go. They’ll likely be dead before their ship arrives. “What’s the point in living?” one might ask, “If you’re just going to die without achieving what you set out to achieve?” Indeed. What is the point?
Love might make the journey through the existential void worth it. The trailer-promised Lawrence/Pratt-anchored romance certainly offers that consolation, but alas, Passengers adds another ominous spacecraft shimmy to the situation. I really don’t know why they didn’t include this bit of information in the advertising for the film. It is the key conflict. It’s what the movie is about. Jim wakes up by accident, but he wakes up Aurora on purpose, because he is tired of being alone, and after reviewing her personnel records, he has fallen in love with her.
And that is where the movie is losing most people. Passengers has been getting miserable reviews in large part because of that plot development. Viewers simply can’t go along with a plot development that smacks of a man disregarding a woman’s consent. I certainly sympathize with the concern, though I also do not think the movie is flippant about this. This moral dilemma is the plot of the film. Jim agonizes over his decision to wake Aurora up prior to doing it, and Aurora rages against him once she learns what he has done. They are all but irreconcilable. Momentarily, their relationship is as hot as the sun. Then it becomes as cold as the void of space. And, it should be noted, while Jim does wake her up, that’s the extent of his forcing of his will on her. Granted, that’s a big secret to keep, but it’s the only one he keeps. After Aurora is given agency in waking up, she maintains it throughout the rest of the film.
Aurora’s quandary about what meaning there can be in a life that is doomed is as complicated as Jim’s. They both have to find reason to live on their own and together. Passengers gets a little plot-heavy and mechanistic in its third act to provide a scenario in which the question is put to Aurora and Jim with greater urgency. The character-based explorations of the film’s first two-thirds are much more enlightening and enjoyable. But the conclusions the characters reach are admirably complex. The Avalon may be fueled by a fusion reactor, but it’s existential angst that drives Passengers. I think the writer of Ecclesiastes would approve of where the film finally settles.
So, Passengers is WALL•E meets Groundhog Day, it’s anchored by two of the most charismatic and likable stars in Hollywood, it has great special effects, and if you can allow the movie’s moral dilemma, you’ll have a great time at the movies. That dilemma – “Faced with the meaninglessness of life, should one involve another in that meaninglessness?”—is not particular to this movie’s plot. We all face it, and most of us arrive at the same conclusion as Jim. Yes, love makes it worth it. Does Aurora arrive there too? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.
P.S. – The only part of Passengers I find unbelievable is the idea that the engineers who built the Avalon would include only a single android servant and that the android they include would be a bartender. It’s almost as if they foresaw that someone would need someone to talk to while drifting alone though