Stockholm from Home

Passengers (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

I have a memory of being taught by an alleged ex-nun who, when she was teaching film, apparently kept reaching for “it was all a dream”. Psycho, for example, didn’t happen, but was dreamt, presumably by Marion Crane in the hotel before Loomis arrived and before she stole the money and drove to a motel. Passengers could well be a dream — it certainly comes across as wish fulfilment.

Spoilers will follow.

The spaceship Avalon is transporting 5,000 colonists and 250 crew in suspended animation on the ninety plus year journey to Homestead II, an offworld colony. Parts of the ship spin, to maintain gravity (you wouldn’t want to float in your bed) and much of it seems brightly lit (too many people afraid of the dark). This is not the cramped interior of the Nostromo — this is a shopping mall in space, Everytown rebuilt, clearly the fuck off atrium wasted interior of a thousand corporate headquarters.

There is an oops in space and Jim Parsons (Chris Pratt) awakes alone and can’t get to sleep again.

We’ve all been there.

He realises that he will have the rest of his natural life alone, aside from robot bartender Arthur — played by Michael Sheen in a performance that you could understand might lead him to consider giving up acting for activism. Rather than sciencing the shit out of the situation, Jim, a mechanical engineer, goes through various attempts to fix the machinery, track down the crew, give in to luxury and hits the bottle. At some point you ponder if it isn’t channelling Groundhog Day rather than The Martian, and there’s a romantic comedy tone that is about to start being troubling.

One fine drunk day he stumbles across a pod containing Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) and, ignoring the intertext of Sleeping Beauty, it’s love at first sight. Of course, it’s not always good to be alone. The temptation to wake someone up would be great — but it could have just as easily been another engineer (the crew being conveniently off limits) or another man. No, he wants a woman because he’s a straight man and Has Needs.

We know this, because before he’s worked out he’s alone and is preparing to meet his fellow colonists, he spends time dressing to impress. Being Pratt, from Guardians of the Games  and Jurassic World, his is a postironic toxic masculinity and you aren’t quite sure how seriously to take it. Whilst the character does agonise about what would in a sense be a death sentence, at no point does he consider that she might not fancy him (but he is Chris Pratt or looks like him) or that she might be a lesbian, or already in a relationship, and so he happily obtains an Eve to his Adam.

Aurora is a writer — a journalist, since His Girl Friday the acceptable face of the professional woman in films (see Conrad) — but clearly a little dim, as she doesn’t question how easier he finds her in such a large ship. She’s of a higher class, so he’s a bit of rough, but it doesn’t take long before she falls in love — but then he is Chris Pratt or looks like him. Arthur, who was ambivalent about Jim’s plan clearly now approves, telling him he’s made a fine choice, in much the same way as a wine waiter would complement a diner on his selection of the ’68 Côte de Rhône. Laurence Fishburne — whose name appears on the poster — seems to have no issues with it.

(Of course, you keep expecting him to offer blue and red pills to Jim. Damn you, intertextuality, damn you all to hell.)

Note how Jim, before he’s realised he’s the only person awake, carefully chooses what to wear before he meets the 4,999 other colonists, two thousand or so of whom being potential mates for the homestead he wants to build (with his bare hands?) on the new colony world. It’s a wonder he’s not called Adam, but we’ll come back to that. He’s a predatory straight male, on the pull, and o doubt has a copy of Neil Strauss’s The Game on his iPad, along with the stalkery gen on Aurora’s life.

Aurora, being a modern woman and all, throws herself at him. Jim’s ruse is sufficient that we get the full dining room table. What a guy.

Of course, we could go the happy ever after route and see them raise a kid or two, but the ship is still falling apart and there’s the little matter of the Little White Lie. Someone lets it slip and Aurora is understandably pissed. Still, it’s a big ship and they can live separate lives.

Jim, goes full stalker, harassing her over the PA system and refusing to take no for an answer. If she had a bunny, it’d be on the stove in the stockpot. If Arthur was working at the Overlook Hotel, then Parsons would be running around wielding an axe and yelling, “Heeeeeeeeeerrrrrreeee’s Jimmy.” She has no hiding place.

I’d already noticed that certain tone however — the air of the light weight.

In Brian Henderson’s fascinating account of the romantic comedy published in 1978, he identifies the unspoken question at the heart of the genre: “Why don’t we fuck?” For the first two thirds of the twentieth century, public morals and the Hays Code meant that sex outside of marriage was unacceptable on filme. Since sex marks the literal climax of the narrative, marriage must be postponed. After the so-called sexual revolution, with the dissolution of the Code, other excuses had to be made. Alongside the narrative of the bickering couple who find true love, there is also the comedy of remarriage. As Henderson suggests, at the heart of these is the question, “Why did we stop fucking?”

The rest of the plot of Passengers must be devoted to getting them fucking again — she has to forgive his teeny weeny mistake and he has to redeem himself. This is the point when the film begins to channel Gravity and we have to risk marooning a character in space.

In other words, we give into the stupids.

I suppose there isn’t drag in space, so I’m not sure what would happen if you were to emerge on a rope from the side of a spaceship travelling at half light speed. Presumably you still travel at a relative speed in parallel to the ship, rather than being slammed against the side. And this would continue even if the rope snapped.

I’m sure they scienced the shit out of it.

Luckily there are two spacesuits next to the airlock that fit both characters. (Or Jim, gifted with knowledge of Aurora’s vital statistics, dug one out for her earlier.) Luckily he can be rescued. Luckily we know there’s a medipod that can cure people.

Oh, and it has a sleep function, too, so one of them can be saved by being put back into hibernation.

Think about it: a spaceship with a population of something in the region of 5,250 has medical facilities for one person.

Can you say, “hubris”?

The romantic comedy imperative is that when your stalker has nearly died and now is about to sacrifice himself then you search within yourself to remember that this is Chris Pratt and his hegemonic masculinity is postironic and utterly adorbs and so you have to go weak at the needs. Er, knees (damn you Otto courgette!). And look for a dining room table.

The look on a film star’s face (his name is on the poster) is clearly worth whatever huge chunk of money he was paid for what ended up as ten seconds of screen time.

But then a lot more of him arriving in Eden was filmed than used. Apparently the script had been drifting around Hollywood since at least 2007 and they could never get the ending to quite work until the edit. I think the ending is the least of the film’s problems (although I would be worried about all the tree roots in the ship’s atrium). I kept getting the sense that the peril was arranged for narrative convenience rather than the narrative deriving from the encounter with peril.

Perhaps some gender swapping might have been beneficial — Lawrence as the resourceful engineer, having to cope with a difficulties-with-girls male author. And maybe we could have done without the romance.

  • Conrad, Dean (2011) “Femmes Futures: One Hundred Years of Female Representation in SF Cinema”, Science Fiction Film and Television, 4(1), pp. 79-99.
  • Henderson, Brian (1978) “Romantic Comedy Today: Semi-Tough or Impossible?”, Film Quarterly, 31(4), pp. 11-23.

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