‘Passengers’ Probably Isn’t What You Think It’s About, And Its Creators Know It’s A Risk

On the surface — or, at least, what Sony Pictures would like you to believe based on the trailers so far — Passengers is the story of two people, Jim and Aurora (played by very famous human beings Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence), who are both stranded alone in space together. The pair are on an interstellar voyage and are woken up from hibernation too soon, leaving them to fend for themselves on a luxury starship for the rest of their lives. The trailers have, at times, painted Passengers as a comedy, a quasi-thriller, and most recently a full-on love story. It’s obvious that someone is having a hard time marketing a movie starring two of the most famous people in the world. Well, there’s a reason for that.

(What follows is not the classic definition of a spoiler. This is an event that occurs early in the film. But, this “event” hasn’t been in any of the marketing of the film, though it’s literally the plot of the film. If you don’t want to know any of this, you shouldn’t read the rest of this piece.)

Passengers is a movie about morality. And, for a huge, potential blockbuster-type film, it’s quite a risk to make the protagonist do something that makes him, frankly, unlikable — even though he’s played by one of the most likable actors on Earth, Chris Pratt.

“He’s just so likeable,” says director Morten Tyldum, who directed 2014’s The Imitation Game. “You feel like he’s one of everybody, like one of us, and that was a huge difference, because he goes in very dark places.”

Yes, about those “dark places”…

Jim Preston is awoken 90 years too early on a voyage to a new planet, Homestead II. Once awake, there’s no way to get back to sleep. So instead of starting his new life on a new planet, Jim is doomed to die of old age on a spaceship transporting 5,000-plus sleeping human beings. Over the course of the next year, Jim slowly starts going insane — his only companionship coming from a robot bartender played by Michael Sheen.

This part of the film almost plays like Cast Away in space, as Jim does anything to entertain himself. And, at first, there’s quite a bit: There’s a basketball court, there are fancy restaurants, there’s a futuristic Dance Revolution type game. And, of course, there’s lots and lots of alcohol and Jim is drunk quite a bit.

If you have seen any of the advertising for this film, you also know that Jennifer Lawrence is in the film. “The biggest female movie star in the world is in the film and on the poster,” says Jon Spaihts, who wrote the first screenplay for Passengers almost 10 years ago. “If we were a leaner movie with a cast of unknowns, I think you’d advertise the movie without even mentioning whole sections of the plot.”

But, yes, we do know Jennifer Lawrence is in the film. So how does her character get into the story? Jim is so lonely he wakes her up, dooming her along with him. It’s a truly selfish act and the movie knows it. And now here’s Chris Pratt, this actor we like, in a role where we can’t help but find his actions despicable. It’s a remarkable plot point for such a huge film. And it’s probably a big reason why Spaihts’ script, which was on the revered Black List in 2007, took another nine years to be made into a movie. Passengers is a very complicated movie.

When I bring up to Spaihts that Jim’s decision, being the backbone of the entire story, could be used as a selling point — that people might want to see Passengers even more knowing there’s this controversial (among a lot of other things) part of the plot, he didn’t disagree. “It is certainly the most compelling thing in the movie,” says Spaihts, “and when you watch it with a large crowd of people, it’s the thing that kicks everybody in the gut.”

He continues, “It is what it’s about. I guess we’ll see whether the studio is making the right play in the long run.”

So, Tyldum and Spaihts have themselves a movie where the protagonist does something pretty terrible early on the film. This is not an easy thing to recover from, for us the audience and the characters involved. As filmmakers, how does one even begin to address this?

“It’s a moral dilemma,” answers Tyldum. He continues, “I want people to eat popcorn and enjoy it and have fun, but I think it’s great to be able to do an original story that you can actually be allowed to ask these questions.”

“Well, I think there are two challenges there,” adds Spaihts. “Because this is a story, in part, about a good man who does an indefensible thing but remains a protagonist. So of course we want everybody to keep loving him. And I think the two challenges we had to meet to make that work were, one, in casting to find a deeply relatable and lovable actor to play that part, to give us as much of a head start as possible.”

Was there any thought of, perhaps, softening Jim’s decision? I read an earlier draft of the script where Jim’s role in waking up Aurora was a little more vague. I was assured by the time production started that there was nothing vague about Jim’s decision. But, could that have offered at least some sympathy for Jim?

“The whole movie is based on that moment,” says Tyldum. “I mean, it’s like, own it.”

Spaihts adds, “It is the dramatic engine of the film and to soften that out of a concern for people’s tender sensibilities would be to gut the story.”

“You have to own it and say that this is something he did but I can understand why he did it,” says Tyldum. He continues, “I think that if you’re doing an ambiguous decision, the character will feel weaker.”

Passengers is a no doubt risky film for the amount of money involved (a reported budget of $120 million) and being a major studio’s holiday tentpole movie in that it’s a) an original story in an age we see so few big budget original stories and b) everything we just covered above. And this is probably why the plot has been kind of, sort of not mentioned much. Conventional wisdom would probably say that “Romance in space!” probably sells better than “Selfish asshole ruins a woman’s life” – but at least the latter is different, in an uncomfortable way, and will get people talking.

“I want people to discuss when they walk out, ‘Would you have done it?’” says Tyldum. “I think that’s really important. And I think people are lying when they say, ‘No, I would never do that,’ because I think it’s a very human reaction. And that’s also why it’s slightly uncomfortable, because it is a very understandable and human reaction, what he’s doing.”

Adds Spaihts, “I think it is one of the things that makes people leery about actually putting their money where their mouth was and producing the film. And I’m very glad that Sony was brave enough to see it for what it was and stand behind it.”

Tyldum continues, “I don’t know if it’s a sadistic side or whatever, but you take characters and put them in really awful situations and make them go through that. And it’s very satisfying as a director to explore that, to tell those stories and to explore those themes, because it is so human.”

So with Passengers you will get a movie where a protagonist played by Chris Pratt is not sympathetic. This will be a big test if audiences will go along for the ride in a movie where one of the two leads does something morally reprehensible and isn’t altogether sympathetic. Is Tyldum ready for that response?

“I don’t think the biggest crime is to not sympathize with people,” says Tyldum with more than a hint of confidence in his voice. “I think the biggest crime is to not be interested.”

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