Robinson in Deep Space

What would you do if you were stranded alone on a spaceship? Morten Tyldum’s recent science fiction thriller Passengers explores the implications of a robinsonade in deep space.

The premise of Passengers is quickly told: In the future, humankind is colonizing other planetary systems. Carrying 5,000 colonists from earth, the starship Avalon is en route towards its destination, the planet Homestead II. Predicted flight time: 120 years. Passengers and crew are kept in a kind of suspended animation in so-called hibernation pods, all is calm… until, 30 years into the journey, one pod malfunctions, accidentally re-awakening passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). Remaining flight time: 90 years.

The implications of that little technological mishap quickly dawn upon Jim, now fully awake, the only conscious person on a gigantic star cruiser thousands of light years away from earth: If he can’t find a way to turn the ship around or get back into suspended animation, he will never step foot on terra firma again. But, alas, the ship doesn’t have the medical equipment necessary to once more put his body into hibernation (which makes sense—no one was supposed to wake up during the journey, after all). Which doesn’t keep Jim, a mechanical engineer, from trying to get back into his little hibernation chamber, leading to an unwittingly comical situation in which he is trapped inside the coffin-like pod, fully conscious. Poor Jim goes on to try pretty much everything that any rational person would in his situation, gradually climbing up the ladder of desperation as he discovers that the ship is on autopilot, the control bridge thoroughly inaccessible, and communication with earth virtually impossible, with messages taking half a century to be relayed.

At first, Jim’s only consolation and company is Arthur (Michael Sheen), an android bartender whose communication software includes a considerable number of commonplace platitudes for emotional support. After more than a year passes thus, a year of despair and drinks served up by a steel-hearted robot waiter, Jim finally gets to meet another human being: Fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), too, wakes up from hibernation—and while we see her, too, struggle with her situation and go through the different stages of desparation, it is obvious that both Aurora and Jim are glad to have another human being of flesh and bone at their side. Needless to say, their flesh-aspect soon overcomes them, and space romance ensues.

But even so, not all is bright on the starship Avalon, with Jim and Aurora facing a lifetime of isolation—and with Jim harboring a dark secret that has the potential to utterly destroy their relationship. Add to that a dramatization of events by means of a slowly failing ship, and you have the ingredients for a story that is engaging throughout, although sometimes not quite as smart as it would like to be.

Jon Spaihts’ script does a good job at turning its simple-enough premise into a varied exploration of different subjects. Starting from and focusing on such classic robinsonade themes as isolation, despair, as well as loss of direction or meaning, and adding aspects of technology, colonization and romantic love, the film’s story manages to feel innovative while recycling a centuries-old frame narrative. Passengers certainly does not always avoid the pitfalls of cliché and convention that come in the slipstream of traditional Hollywood romance, but the way it connects the different dots in its narration makes it interesting at almost all times.

As an update to the literary tradition of the robinsonade, Passengers not only stresses our need to connect with other human beings, but also sheds a critical light on the role of technology and artificial intelligence: In one scene, during his first year of isolation, Jim is seen talking to Arthur, the android bartender. Straying a bit from their usual, superficial routine of conversation, Jim begins to ask him existential, ethically complex questions that haunt him. Faced with these questions, Arthur’s only reply is that they aren’t really “robot questions”—practically leaving Jim alone in a time of immense emotional need. The medical robot in the ship’s clinic is an even more obvious example: Announcing to one of the characters that there is no medical cure for their condition, it releases a handful of pills, explaining in a cold, mechanical voice that they are sedatives, meant to make the patient’s last hours more bearable. End of consultation. A comment on the effects of the trend towards automation in healthcare? Perhaps. Certainly, however, a chilling reminder of how much is lost if real, human contact and relations are supplanted by modern technology. What Spaihts’ and Tyldum’s vision of the future demonstrates very efficiently, then, is that technology has neither human nor humane answers to our most important questions and our most intimate feelings.

And one more point is rightfully emphasized—even if, finally, in an all too romantic fashion: Not only is there a need for us to be in touch with other humans, but also with nature. It is easy to see what could be missing on a sterile, empty starship built for century-long space journeys. Flowers. Trees. Rivers. Unfiltered air. Jim and Aurora find themselves stranded in a clinical, artificial environment that seems like the smooth-edged pinnacle of clean architecture and design, like an Apple-built spaceship, complete with robots keeping the surfaces immaculate at all times. The only bodies of water are a swimming pool and a fountain, both perfectly symmetrical. The only hints at nature are giant digital screens displaying mountain and forest panoramas. Once, there is a software error in one of these screens: It’s the end of any illusion. And no screen, no fountain, nothing artificial, Tyldum’s film suggests, can replace the feeling of a real connection to mother earth.

In its motifs and aesthetics, Passengers owes a lot to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as well as to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013). And, while not aspiring to reach the intellectual spheres of the former nor managing to come close to the depth of experience of the latter, Tyldum (The Imitation Game) walks in the footsteps of his famed predecessors with surprising aplomb. Under his direction, Pratt and Lawrence (and, not to forget, Sheen) deliver passionate performances that carry the emotional weight of the entire movie, and the visual effects, although not quite perfect, are often overwhelming.

All of this is not to say that Passengers is without flaws. The script, in particular, could very well have done with some polishing. It is sad to see that screenwriters in the 21st century – writing about the future, no less – still perpetuate medieval gender roles. When Jim, close to the film’s climax, puts on his spacesuit to go on a life-threatening mission, willing to sacrifice his own life to save Aurora’s and the other passengers’, it is too reminiscent of the noble knight putting on his shiny armor to watch without cringeing. Scenes like this one are particularly troubling as Aurora is originally introduced as a very independent character—and Lawrence has a track-record of playing strong female roles. On top of that, there is also a good amount of plot holes, clichés, and elements that do not quite make sense.

Yet, if you are willing to accept a sometimes conventional plot as trade-off for an insightful and gripping depiction of an interstellar robinsonade, Passengers can be a commendable film. Visually stunning throughout, often emotionally and intellectually captivating, Tyldum’s latest is, at its best, a smart showcase for what science fiction is capable of.

Passengers (US 2016). Directed by Morten Tyldum. Written by Jon Spaihts. Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto. Starring Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Sheen. 116 min.

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