active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Travel without arriving

A man awakens from stasis. Everyone else on the spaceship is asleep, including a hold full of female flesh. It’s the pocket universe version of the last man on Earth fantasy, with a frisson of necrophilia thrown in.

2016 was a bad year for true science fiction, by which I mean SF that doesn’t veer into fantasy (psychic or super powers, time travel, etc). Of the few movies that qualify, Spectral scrapes by merely because it may be immensely silly but it is no more silly than Star Trek. But there was only one true SF movie of any note last year, and it is unforgiveable in an entirely different way.

Passengers, first shopped around the studios as a speculative script by Jon Spaihts in 2007, is a geek’s wet dream. I’m awake, and you’re all asleep. I’m alive, and you’re all dead. I get the run of a futuristic spaceship, and I can indulge in every fantasy I can think up. Oh, and when my balls start to ache, I simply have to revive my pick of the female passengers.

She’s bound to love me. I’m the only man there is.

There’s no other way of reading this movie. I’ve seen it excused because the man in question, Jim Preston (played by Cheshire-cat-faced Chris Pratt), cannot save the spaceship by himself. It takes two to deal with the problems that begin to put the mission in jeopardy two years after a piece of space debris activates his lone cryopod.

In other words, it’s okay for Preston to revive the girl because he’s psychic. He can see into the future. (This is acceptible, let me reiterate, in science fiction.)

But this reasoning is bogus since Preston obviously isn’t aware that the ship is in jeopardy when he revives Aurora Lane (cute, compliant Jennifer Lawrence). Even when systems malfunction and cleaner robots start bashing blindly into walls, and even though he himself is an engineer, he doesn’t think there might be a problem. He’s too busy nursing his erection and gazing at the women in their tanks.

But let’s play out the thought experiment. You’re in a spaceship that is having technical difficulties you can’t resolve by yourself. You’re going to have to revive somebody, and your joint sacrifice will save everybody else.

Who’s it going to be? The young sexy female journalist. Of course.

Not only that, but the year Preston spends mooning over her, wooing her, maneuvering her into his bed, might have been better spent running system diagnoses, exploring every part of the ship, and fixing the problem before it turns into a crisis. Aurora was a bad choice in more ways than one.

Where did Passengers come from? There are plenty of predecessors. The most likely is Allen Steele’s 2002 novel Coyote, the first of a series about the colonization of a distant moon.

Incidentally, Coyote isn’t true SF either. It’s one of those quasi-SF novels that ought to come with a warning sticker on the front, like rap albums. When you reach the fourth book in the sequence, Steele casually tosses telepathy into his story. You may well feel cheated, as I did.

In Coyote, the revival of a lone sleeper introduces a moral conundrum that Steele cannot quite reconcile. The best thing for Leslie Gillis to do is throw himself out the nearest airlock at once. Instead he spends a long, pointless life on board, eating his way through the ship’s provisions. Steele attempts to redeem Gillis by having him paint a mural on the walls and write a fantasy tale for the colony’s children, but honestly, he doesn’t.

Passengers desperately wants to be a family movie, so it pulls every punch. It’s not nearly as dark as it should have been. The robot barkeeper Arthur (who declares, wrongly, that he’s an android), and some of the more psychedelic decor in this hotel-in-space, suggest that Preston’s moral breakdown is based on The Shining. But Preston doesn’t have the excuse of madness. He’s the hero, and his isn’t a crime of passion. As the movie is at pains to point out, he agonizes over his decision to revive Aurora for months beforehand.

Wait, he agonizes over it? And that somehow redeems him? So it would be okay to be a pedophile, say, agonizing for months over whether or not it’s okay to abduct and rape the six year old girl next door?

The movie says sure, go ahead. You are redeemed by your agony. Whereas in fact the agonizing turns you from a creep into a calculating creep, which is unarguably worse.

To his credit, Pratt attempts to play a nuanced role, but his persona precedes him. As soon as a crew member (Laurence Fishburne) is revived, Pratt is shoved into the comedy role. But this is necessary for the movie’s melty-edged moral cheese: Pratt’s cheeky persona is the only defense he has. Otherwise he’s just another monster in an enclosed space.

As for Aurora, she never quite picks up the fire ax I’d expect her to wield. She’s little more than a sex object, teasingly naked in her spacesuit. Toward the end she even manages to strip off in exactly the same manner that Ripley does at the end of Alien. Girls always take their clothes off when there’s a crisis on a spaceship. It’s what the geeks demand — and boy, do geeks have a movie to salivate over here.

Does anything redeem Passengers? The filmmakers obviously wanted to evoke Gravity. There’s all the standard spacesuit drama business with people floating untethered in space, and rescue efforts where the tether is just too short, dammit.

And they loaded it with quasi-science, showing that they made at least a token effort at plausibility. For example, the film is correct in showing that when Preston jumps off the spinning carousel that gives the ship Earth-like gravity, he falls straight down to the end of his tether.

You might even excuse them the idea that when he reaches the end of the tether it doesn’t rip out of his backpack or break his spine in half. Or that, since he’s now much lower than the carousel, he’s experiencing higher than Earth gravity and hence his arms and legs should drape beneath him rather than be held akimbo like a skydiver. But it doesn’t explain how he climbs back up to the ship.

At one point a malfunction switches off gravity. How? To stop the carousel the ship would need to exert force in the opposite direction to the spin. But all that happens is that Preston drifts up from his bed and Aurora’s swimming pool forms a bubble of water with herself in the middle. This is sexy space, not real space.

Another time the ship suddenly slingshots around Arcturus, which enables some close-up Sunshine-style imagery but makes little sense. How do the inhabitants, sleeping or awake, escape being frazzled by the heat and radiation?

Encouragingly, the filmmakers have realized that when you send a message home, it’s going to take longer for the reply to reach you since you’re traveling away from Earth. But do the math and you discover that the ship is currently moving at 60% light speed. Pretty fast, but we still need that unlikely slingshot around Arcturus, and afterwards the ship will actually be moving slower, at an average velocity for the whole trip of 40% light speed.

Either way, I’m not sure Preston and Aurora are going to stand on the rim of the carousel and see stars.

There’s an interesting story in the premise behind Passengers, one I might have liked to have seen. For example, the movie might have ended with a victoriously murderous Aurora spending the rest of her life freezing Preston in the medical unit only to revive him every so often so she can slowly dismember him a little more.

Alternately, if you were in Preston’s situation, would you awaken your wife? And your children? That would be a moral conundrum worth exploring. What if Aurora was the one who awoke first? And what if she was a middle-aged plain woman, not a young sexy one?

Either way, we’re talking a half hour TV drama, not a full blown Hollywood spectacle.

Passengers celebrates a cheap and morally bankrupt vision and seems unrepentant about it. The movie ends with Pratt and Lawrence snuggled together in blissful rural seclusion, having turned the ship into a pioneer’s homestead. Unable to reach their destination, they’ve brought the colony planet to themselves. No kids though, as far as we can tell, or we might be into all that icky Adam and Eve incest business.

And I suspect that Passengers, by fulfilling the studio’s need to cater to the intelligent SF demographic once a year, diverted money away from the making of another SF movie whose script might also be languishing in development hell. And that hurts most of all.


Robert Maas’s novel Hemisphere is available to buy in six installments at Amazon. For details and links, see the Hemisphere page.


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