Warning: major spoilers ahead.
If you’ve been paying even one iota of attention, then you are well-aware that Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt have been busy promoting the ever-loving sh*t out of their new movie, Passengers. The undeniably likable duo have both been forced to do any number of blatantly-obvious marketing stunts, from skits, to interviews, to just hurling hilarious insults at one another. Despite this pandering to audiences, all promotional materials seemed to indicate that Passengers was on track to be a well-liked and well-received winter blockbuster.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
Now that people have actually seen the film, they are taking major issue with one of the central plot devices that is used to propel the “rom-com in space” narrative — and for good reason.
Chris Pratt’s character is a handsome mechanic named Jim Preston whose hibernation pod malfunctions 90 years early, leaving him awake and alone on the spaceship Avalon, which is full of sleeping passengers en route to the off-world colony, Homestead II. Unable to put himself back in hibernation mode, Jim is essentially doomed to die alone on the space charter. Jim spends a full year attempting to keep himself occupied on the ship, and grows increasingly despondent as the novelty of solitary space travel quickly wears off. After contemplating flinging himself into space and committing suicide, Jim notices Jennifer Lawrence’s character sleeping in her own hibernation pod. Lawrence’s character is given the apt (and somewhat stripper-esque) name Aurora Lane, and Jim becomes obsessed with this newfound sleeping beauty.
After a bit of hurried soul-searching, Jim decides to awaken Aurora — solving his loneliness problem while simultaneously sentencing her to the same, hopeless fate.
Jim does not reveal to Aurora that he is responsible for her awakening, and instead pretends that her hibernation pod has succumbed to the same malfunction as his own, thereby turning him into her savior rather than her captor.
It’s this particular plot point that is proving to be problematic to so many critics and viewers. The movie continues on, as though Jim meddling in Aurora’s life and livelihood for the sake of his own happiness isn’t necessarily vilifying, and turns the whole thing into a science-fiction meet cute. The two begin to fall in love during their time on the solitary ship, and even engage in (*gasp*) sexual relations. When Jim finally reveals that he is the one responsible for waking Aurora, the truth is treated as a dramatic obstacle for the lovers to overcome, as opposed to what it actually is: a terrifying decision which has stranded a non-complicit woman with total stranger for 90 years, against her will.
As film critic Bilge Ebiri writes in The Village Voice:
It’s not so much that the film ignores the small detail of Jim effectively murdering Aurora by bringing her out of sleep; we know it’ll come up soon enough. It’s that it reduces it to an obligatory narrative convenience designed to predictably draw the lovers apart ahead of the third act – the sci-fi equivalent of Meg Ryan finding out that Tom Hanks was secretly the owner of the big bookstore chain that was putting her out of business.
In addition to glossing over the problematic implications of forcing someone awake to basically fulfill the role of an attractive play-thing, the movie then proceeds to reduce Aurora’s character to a female lead that is almost entirely devoid of agency — a huge blow, considering the characters that we are accustomed to seeing from Lawrence. Entertainment Weekly‘s Chris Nashawaty writes:
It doesn’t help the film’s whole female-victimization vibe either that Lawrence is relegated to being a pretty helpless damsel in distress when the Avalon’s systems start to fail. She’s way too good of an actress to be told to look scared and shout lines like “What does that mean?!” when technical terms are thrown around, and “Jim, how do we fix this?!” while Pratt tries to win her back with his can-do heroism. She’s stuck in what essentially amounts to a risable two-hour exhibit of sci-fi Stockholm Syndrome.
While it’s clear that the movie was created with earnest intentions, it falls short of truly addressing the dark consequences of Jim’s behavior. When Jim is woken up, his fate is painted as hopeless. When Aurora is woken up, the verdict on her fate seems to be, “Yeah, it’s bad, but like, she’s not alone and she’s in love, so is it really that bad?”
Rebeccah Hawkes writes in The Telegraph:
I kept waiting for the twist…the moment when the narrative’s “hero” would be called to account for his actions. After all, he’d knowingly, deliberately condemned this woman, a fellow human being, to a horrifyingly lonely existence. Her only options would be to enter into some form of relationship with Jim (an emotional one, if not a physical/romantic one), or to remain alone forever.
The movie could have explored some interesting implications — perhaps an analysis about loneliness breeding selfishness, or maybe even a social commentary on the cardboard allure of a Manic Pixie Hibernation Girl who exists purely to entertain the male protagonist.
But the movie doesn’t do that. Instead, it perpetuates the notion that this psychologically-abusive relationship is somehow the height of romance. It under-utilizes Lawrence’s talent, and refuses to hold Pratt’s character accountable for his actions.
So, what does all of this negative feedback mean? Does it mean that you should shell out your money to go see the most romantic psychological manipulation ever featured onscreen, or perhaps just go see Arrival for the third time? Ultimately, that’s a decision you should make for yourself — and trust me, either way, this movie is going to make plenty of money.
The actors and writers involved in this don’t necessarily need to be raked over the coals in order to make the point that this kind of narrative is astoundingly archaic and misogynist, considering our current cultural climate. They aren’t bad people and they weren’t setting out to make a bad or offensive film. The solution to this problematic story is not to lambast the creators itself, but rather to point out that there was almost zero diversity in the room when it came to this movie’s conception.
“It should come as a shock to literally no one that all 12 of the people listed as producers on Passengers are men, in addition to its male director and its male writer,” writes Cosmopolitan‘s Emma Dibdin.
“Having even a single female voice in the room, at any stage, could have been a bulwark against tone-deaf, misogynistic ‘romance’ like this.”
This issue isn’t really about Passengers‘ failure to deliver a story that serves both its male and female leads. It really boils down to the movie industry’s failure to nurture its female writers, directors and producers.
And, unfortunately, that particular shortcoming is going to take more than two hours to solve.