Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Passengers
High hopes abounded for Morten Tyldum’s recent release Passengers. With a holiday release date, an interesting premise, and Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence cast as the leads, it seemed the film would be unstoppable. After over a week in theatres, though, the film has barely made up a third of its budget, and critics almost universally agree that the film is a superficial, unsatisfying mess. Since this script was on the renowned Black List and it took nearly a decade for the movie to finally see development, it’s doubly frustrating that the final result would be so bad. So, where does the blame for Passengers really lie?
The reasons for Passengers‘ failure range from the practical to the political. At the most basic level, it was a terrible call for distributor Columbia Pictures to release the film just one week after Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a fellow sci-fi movie that also happened to be part of one of the biggest sci-fi movie franchises of all time. Creatively, Passengers‘ script suffered from a number of key changes, while its halted development likely contributed to its derivative nature. Lastly, Passengers‘ plot hinges on a concept so misguided it stands as a cautionary tale for future screenwriters and denigrates years of representational progress in the sci-fi genre.
To say that Columbia was overconfident in scheduling Passengers for a December 21st debut would be an understatement. Though the film looked promising due to its star power, intriguing concept, and critically acclaimed director (Morten Tyldum of The Imitation Game), it was still beyond risky to program the sci-fi flick immediately after Rogue One‘s release. If anything is certain about the film industry, it’s that franchises and adaptations stand the best chance of bringing in the big bucks, and Star Wars is one of Hollywood’s hottest modern franchises. It was a grievous mistake to ask Passengers, an original idea, to upend the sci-fi giant on Christmas weekend. For whatever reason, Hollywood still hasn’t learned that star power can’t always save a film at the box office, and Passengers – along with other 2016 flops like A Hologram for the King (starring Tom Hanks) and The Infiltrator (starring Bryan Cranston) – only further proves that hypothesis. In this new age of regurgitated scripts, it seems a new film just can’t win against a dominant franchise.
That said, it doesn’t really help if the original screenplay in question is no good. While fans and critics alike had high hopes for Passengers because of its promising script, the movie’s end result was wildly disappointing. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts broke into the industry when the script landed a top spot on the 2007 Black List of best un-produced screenplays. The original idea kickstarted his career as Hollywood’s resident space thriller author, and he went on to pen the screenplay for 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus. Spaihts has been busy of late, working on the scripts for both Passengers and new Marvel addition Doctor Strange. Though the latter film saw big numbers at the box office and generally positive reviews (unlike Passengers), some say that its stunning visuals and standout performances compensated for its derivative plot. Screen Rant’s own review, though overwhelmingly positive, calls Doctor Strange formulaic.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the script that garnered Spaihts his place at the top has been so widely panned. Early reviews of the film eagerly criticized its overproduced visuals and poorly-paced plot, and our own review calls the script “a hurdle Passengers can’t get past.” Though it’s possible this version of the film was a disservice to the Black List darling of yore, as the original script provided a more satisfying ending and would have likely solved some of the film’s more glaring pacing issues, even that version was not without its problems. The lead characters who dominate Passengers‘ screen time are two-dimensional, and the plot fails to successfully balance action and romance. Given those pre-existing issues, plus the unfortunate timing that makes Passengers seem derivative in a post-Gravity world, it’s possible the film was doomed to fail.
Perhaps the most glaring flaw in Passengers‘ script, though, is its disturbing premise and the decision to play it off as romantic. It’s telling that, of all the script changes this film went through from 2007 to 2016, the original concept remained the same. Engineer Jim Preston (Pratt) wakes up from cryosleep in a ship headed for a new planet, only to discover that his awakening has come 90 years too early due to a malfunction. After a year of solitude, Preston becomes obsessed with the sleeping form of one female passenger, Aurora “Thinly-Veiled Sleeping Beauty Insert” Lane (Lawrence). He decides to wake her, and the two must battle the ship’s more dangerous malfunctions together before finally falling in love. And then dying. Because, in case I didn’t make it clear, this isn’t set in an alternate future where humans can magically live for over 120 years. Both leads die in every version of the script.
The script’s worst offense, then, is not Aurora’s sketchy characterization (because a poorly-written female character in a Hollywood movie isn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence), but the film’s overall romanticization of Jim’s actions. The leading man’s actions showcase an appalling sense of entitlement that the film barely questions, with only some lip-service deliberation on Jim’s part before he finally decides to wake Aurora. Not only does Jim wake (and effectively soft-core murder) Aurora; his compelling reason for doing so is that he likes her scant video profile and the way she looks. Jim convinces himself that he has come to know Aurora, and fall in love with her, through the most superficial of details. This is all to say that, if the person you think you’re falling in love with is asleep, you’re not really falling in love with that person. Like the character herself, Aurora scarcely exists as a human woman so much as a fantasy onto which Jim can project his own desires. And the film allows this, and expects its audience will too, as the two leads end the film more in love than ever.
Passengers‘ real Achilles heel is the schism between how the filmmakers viewed Jim’s actions, and how they come across to general audiences. Since the film was marketed as an action-romance, and its trailer conveniently implied that Aurora and Jim wake up at the same time, the film’s real plot acts more like a gut-punch than a satisfying twist. The film’s poor reviews and dismal box office performance suggest that audiences are uninterested in what it has to offer, including Aurora’s half-baked characterization and the attempt to take the sting out of Jim’s actions by casting one of Hollywood’s most charming actors in the role.
In contrast to Passengers, Rogue One’s protagonist, Jyn Erso, has a compelling backstory and a cohesive character arc despite being part of an ensemble tale. Even though Rogue One does the bare minimum for female cinematic representation, it’s still miles ahead of Passengers (at least Cassian doesn’t objectify and murder Jyn), and that may well have helped it conquer the box office as well as it did.
Maybe audiences are bored of seeing female characters crafted only as objects of desire for male protagonists. Maybe this script sat in the cooker a few years too long, or it would have done better premiering far away from Rogue One. Maybe modern audiences are just done with the space romance concept in general. There are a multitude of reasons that contributed to Passengers‘ utter failure, and this is only a glimpse at a few of them. Still, as the filmmaking market becomes more and more saturated with futuristic flicks and franchise power only grows stronger, Passengers serves as an important cautionary tale for how not to introduce an original idea into the cinematic world. The movie relies on antiquated ideas of romance, shiny imagery, and star power when it could have instead provided stronger characters and some much-needed pacing maintenance.