In Passengers (2016), Jim Preston and Aurora Lane, two travellers abroad a spaceship, are released from stasis about 90 years ahead of schedule. They cope with isolation, and are forced into a challenge of saving the ship from destruction.
The story plays with a number of themes beginning with Jim Preston’s stasis pod malfunctioning, which puts his character into the marooned mariner scenario. The difference here is that this desert island is a spaceship in deep space, a technological island 90 years away from ‘rescue’ (when the crew and passengers will be woken up and the ship will arrive at its destination). The irony here is that although Jim Preston will die alone, he has everything he needs to survive — except human companionship. He is in a kind of limbo, in transit; on a journey without a destination. This dislocation like Viktor Navorski in The Terminal is a place where Jim is alive but unable to live a normal life. He is surrounded by people, but they are asleep. He might as well be the hero from 28 Days Later: the last man on earth. The scenario is given a contemporary twist, as he has access to digital information, which he uses to learn about Aurora Lane. She’s a woman he spots in one of the stasis pods that he becomes obsessed about.
Jim Preston suffers from the psychological effects of isolation, and purposelessness, much like Chuck Noland in Cast Away. Where Chuck has his trusty volleyball Wilson to chat to, Jim converses with Arthur, an amenable android bartender. These non-human companions bring light relief, emotional perspective, and opportunities for plot explanation. Jim’s isolation and friendship with Arthur has similarities to the robot GERTY in Moon, and TARS in Interstellar. The bar where Jim takes his drinks and chats with Arthur has an Art Deco style with an eerie resemblance to the bar in The Shining where Jack Torrance talks to the ghostly bartender — the carpet looks uncannily like the one in the Overlook Hotel.
When Jim’s predicament becomes desperate he weighs the ethics of waking Aurora Lane from her stasis pod. This action brings ethical considerations that threatens the audience’s empathy for his character. Waking her up is an act of vandalism, irresponsibly dangerous, and it consigns her to the same fate as himself: to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives on a spaceship in transit, and die before it reaches its destination. Another character even comments on his action and excuses it as an act of desperation, thus making it understandably human. Again, the story justifies his immorality by redeeming him as the hero who acts with courage and self-sacrifice.
Since an audience leaves a film based on the experience of its ending, a satisfying resolution is crucial for a good reception. This is where Passengers falters. What should be the story’s strongest card turns into a let-down of sorts. The resolution is handled honestly and in a manner that feels true to the characters, but it doesn’t feel satisfying. By skipping into the future and cutting to the wider picture, it provides context, but it loses the immediacy of the two central characters. It contextualises the characters experience within a larger framework — human destiny.
Passengers is really a story about two people, their relationship, falling in love, overcoming mistrust, and, finally, working together as a team. Their existence within an enclosed micro-world ultimately turns Jim’s immoral action into fateful destiny that has a positive purpose: in other words doing the wrong thing can have an unintended beneficial outcome. This culminates in the neo-hippy ending and the message about learning to live in the moment, in harmony with one’s surroundings. It recalls the eco-message of Silent Running, another story of isolation in space, and with an equally melancholic undertone, albeit unexplored here. The story says that Devine providence will make things come right — Jim and Aurora were meant for one another: they could only have met in this way. So, it wasn’t all for nothing: it was mean to be. Crucially, Aurora gives Jim back his humanity. The problem here is that Jim is rewarded for his immoral action.
Passengers celebrates the teamwork and ingenuity required to achieve a bigger goal, something that goes beyond mere self-preservation. It’s also a warning about the potential dangers of losing our humanity while living in a technological bubble.