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Passengers is Sexist Nonsense

By  · Published on December 19th, 2016

Morten Tyldum’s sci-fi romance is an outdated and offensive fairy tale in disguise.

In The Imitation Game-director Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, two extremely good-looking movie stars find themselves stuck alone on a space ship with nothing to do but wear show-stopping fashion and fall madly in love with each other. Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt and a pretty decent “all play but no work” concept (like The Shining, but in reverse), with shades of Wall-E visible on every corner. It’s surely a package that intrigues on spec and principle. At least until you witness Passengers’ deep contempt for its female protagonist, and by extension, women everywhere.

The setting is naturally the future, in a state-of-the-art spaceship called Avalon (Guy Hendrix Dyas’ stunning production design might be Passengers’ only redeeming quality.) Occupied with thousands of hibernating passengers in their pods, Avalon journeys to a planet called Homestead II, located approximately 120 years away from earth. No one is supposed to wake up from hibernation until the final few months of the trip, at which point the journey would turn into a grand ole party where passengers would acclimate, meet each other, and celebrate the prospect of starting a new life together at a far, far away planet full of possibilities. One such soul that left the earth behind is Jim Preston (Pratt); an engineer who wants to feel useful again, away from the overpopulated and “overrated” earth where people just replace broken things instead of fixing them. His pod malfunctions 30-something years into the journey, and he wakes up (permanently, as there is no way to go back into hibernation) to face the grim truth. Turning Avalon into his man-cave of fun and games for a year and change, loneliness gets the best of Jim, who’s destined to die on the ship before any of the other passengers wake up. Eventually, Jim picks Aurora Lane (Lawrence) to be his mate, because, well, she looks good in her pod and sounds cool in her bio. So he wakes her up prematurely, basically stealing her life and all her hopes for the future.

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As the Jon Spaiths-scribed Passengers leads you further into its basic storyline, one loses track of the antiquated offenses it causes around female agency, competence and right to consent. For a while, Aurora – a writer who’d be temporarily stationed in Homestead II to return to earth and write about her experiences eventually – lives obliviously, thinking she had also been a victim of a pod malfunction. So she gives in to the charms of Jim. The happy, impossibly well-groomed couple (at least, considering the circumstances) indulge in fine cuisine and plenty of booze, served up by their robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen, in a role that nods to The Shining). After one too many heart-to-hearts with Jim and shaking countless martinis to the dating couple, Arthur spoils the fun and spills the beans to Aurora. (From this point on, major spoilers ahead.)

Passengers could have taken a bold and brave turn here, but what it instead does is outright insulting to women. The film brazenly milks the viewer’s sympathy for Jim, clearly siding with the couple’s artificial romance, instead of Aurora’s happiness and prosperity. With a worsening malfunction in the ship, the film manufactures the perfect excuse for Aurora to team up with Jim again and forgive him, as her own stolen future is a minor inconvenience when compared to an entire ship that might blow up. And when we expect Aurora to finally look out for her own interests after a miraculously prevented catastrophe, she chooses her handsome prince instead: the very guy who’s basically stalked and in a way, murdered her for his own well-being. Thus, Passengers shamelessly creates its own fairy tale universe that assumes all women ever want is to be swept away by a man, rescued and saved in the face of an uncertain future.

In a climactic scene towards the end, Aurora declares, “You die, I die” to Jim. If this reminds you of a vaguely similar line of another doomed ship romance, you are right on the money, but not quite for the reasons you think. Yes, it’s a line of dialogue obviously “borrowed” from James Cameron’s masterful Titanic (remember “You jump, I jump.”) In fact, the whole film will inevitably bring Cameron’s epic to mind. But all Passengers eventually manages is highlight how Aurora Lane is no Rose DeWitt Bukater (or, from Sarah Connor to Ripley, any of James Cameron’s female survivors) in the way she’s written and treated solely from a male lens of fantasy. In Passengers, Aurora’s delivery is a cry for her helplessness. In Titanic, Rose’s is a declaration of bravery and even equality. Perhaps expecting a James Cameron-level female lead from this inane film is unfair and as ridiculous as Passengers is itself. But one can’t help but desire another kind of sci-fi where females control their own fates, or at least, refrain from falling in love with their assailants. Dare to dream.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.