For a film to operate in any genre is to operate within the many films of that genre, by extension and association. Sci-fi, in particular, readily calls to mind films both old and new (2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Blade Runner). Passengers is unmistakably sci-fi, therefore comparisons to these films are unavoidable. In fact, they are necessary as the genre continues to evolve and move forward.
Passengers may not reference other films, but it’s something we do from an audience standpoint because the inter-texts are so easy to draw. As far as plot goes, Passengers is an interstellar love story (Interstellar) where our heroes are seeking for a new home on a new planet (Avatar), and along the way their ship mysteriously malfunctions (Sunshine), leaving it to them to save the lives of everybody on board. The hyper-futuristic architecture of the Avalon recalls a key setting of another love story (Wall-E), and the ship even has its own cast of robots to bear (Blade Runner). That’s not to say that Passengers or any of these films are unoriginal. But at this point audiences are attuned to the iconography of robots, spaceships, and the existential emptiness of space that the film comparisons aren’t just obvious; they’re second nature. This begs the question: does Passengers add anything new to the genre?
We Found Love In A Hopeless Place
The romance between Jim and Aurora, while nothing we haven’t seen before, is something relatively new that the film has to offer. That’s not to say that there haven’t been love stories in sci-fi (Han and Leia, Jake and Neytiri, Wall-E and EVA), but Passengers is almost strictly a love story. It has more in common with Romeo + Juliet and Titanic than it does with any of its sci-fi counterparts (we’ll get to why this is problematic).
Jim and Aurora are two keenly separate souls. Jim boarded the Avalon for a chance to start over. Upon awakening, Jim struggles to remember, to walk, gain his bearings, the pod functioning as a womb, Jim having essentially been reborn. He spends a year stranded on the Avalon, a ship full of everything he could possibly hope for except people, the irony being that he’s on a ship full of them. You can only go so far with technology; at some point, we need human interaction to feel truly alive.
Aurora boarded the Avalon for that specific reason. Tired of writing the same stories about the same people on the same planet, Aurora sought the voyage to Earth II intending to go back to Earth I, charting her experiences as a way of connecting the two worlds in a meaningful way, or perhaps instill upon herself some sort of meaning in her life.
Jim and Aurora venture into space seeking a new beginning and find it in each other. Their interaction is awkward at first, like the remnants of a first date. As they get to know each other, their pauses and quirks become more natural and lived in. Soon, it’s impossible to see why they wouldn’t fall for each other. While this may be cinematic, none of it is particularly original.
Romance > Sci-Fi
Their romance didn’t need to be told in a spaceship. It could just as well have taken place at a motel in the Midwest, Jim and Aurora as lost travelers whose lives intersect in the context of a road movie (I would argue the film would have been better this way because at least it would’ve been grounded). Because despite the gadgetry and polished sets, the story beats and mechanisms are painfully cliché. Jim and Aurora meet, they get to know each other, they go on a date, they say the “L” word, lots of kissing ensues. Passengers is essentially a young adult movie, which is a disgrace to YA because a film like Fault in Our Stars told its love story insurmountably better.
But the real reason why Jim and Aurora’s romance falters is because of a crucial plot point early on: Jim chooses to wake up Aurora. Luckily (or unluckily), he is taken to the brink before making this decision. But he could have woken anyone else and just happened to choose a beautiful woman. Jim does wrestle with the morality of his choice, but it isn’t enough to empathize with him because he benefits incredibly well from his actions. The film attempts to reconcile this at the end by putting Jim’s life at stake, leaving Aurora with the decision to save him. Even so, neither the film nor Chris Pratt’s endless charm can distract us from what is clearly a man preying on a woman.
What’s worse is how the film is uninterested in making Aurora a compelling or standout character given that it’s Jennifer Lawrence. Aurora’s arc may not be anti-feminist, but it’s not progressive either. She chooses to be with him despite him handing her a death sentence, which is wholly problematic because it’s essentially Stockholm Syndrome. The film overlooks this because it’s a love story and they’re so blindly in love. Aurora even hysterically shouts, “You die, I die,” which is the 21st century equivalent of “You jump, I jump.”
Aside from her name, there’s nothing particularly unique about Aurora. She’s a well-off writer who can afford the voyage to and from Earth and live to tell it. Thus represents one of many missed opportunities in the narrative. Jim and Aurora are class opposites, Aurora being of a high social status, Jim on the lower end. Her suite is suitably decked out, Jim’s is bare and compact. Aurora has many options for breakfast, Jim can only afford oatmeal. There’s no real comment on this aside from a contrast played purely for laughs. The film merely glosses over the potential for substance or subtext. Even when Aurora distances herself from Jim (giving each other “space” in space), there’s no real impact of their fractured romance because they’re almost always in the same shot. And since the film has already devoted 40 minutes to them falling in love, we can't spend another 40 minutes watching them fall out of love because the plot to move forward.
Titanic In Space
The plot, sadly, lacks urgency. In fact, the conflict happens prior to Jim waking up. The Avalon encounters an asteroid belt, seriously damaging the interior systems, which causes Jim’s pod to breakdown and awaken him (the trailers would have you believe there’s a reason as to why they woke up; there isn’t). Thus, the ship has already hit the iceberg and this affects no one on board because they’re in hibernation.
There’s another pod failure as the Avalon continues to go haywire, awakening Gus, the ship’s Chief Deck Officer. Laurence Fishburne, however, has very little use in the plot, serving only to verbalize what we already know: there’s something wrong with the ship. His pod failure proves to be far more catastrophic, severely worsening his health, and so the only person who can articulate what’s wrong suddenly dies before he can actually articulate it (yet another black character who dies first).
Even with Gus’ limited time, the film can’t explain why there are no rotating pilots on the ship, or why the hibernation pods can’t reset, or why the ship can’t automatically awaken the ship’s crew in case something critical happens. That’s a whole lot of variables left to chance, especially with 5,000 souls on board (it makes Prometheus seem like the more successful voyage based solely on risk factor). Passengers fails to justify a great deal of things, but most problematic of all is how it can’t quite justify being both sci-fi and a love story, which isn’t impossible (see Wall-E).
“If you live an ordinary life, all you’ll have are ordinary stories.” The film wants to be out-of-this-world extraordinary, but the journey of Passengers succumbs to its own logic. If little else, the film is a lesson as to what makes for good sci-fi. Sci-fi ponders deep and thoughtful questions, not glaring plot holes. Sci-fi explores what it means to be human, not get swept away by Instagram quotes on life and love. Most importantly, good sci-fi is built on humanist drama, not overblown melodrama, otherwise the gargantuan sets, the gorgeous cinematography, and rousing score ultimately ring hollow in the end, much like Jim and Aurora’s romance and not even a doomed one at that. “You can’t get hung up on where you’d rather be that you forget to make the most of where you are,” Aurora writes in her book. Passengers’ greatest sin is forgetting to make the most out of its sci-fi premise.