Surprise! Passengers Is Actually A Terrifying Movie

Photo: The Moviestore Collection Ltd/REX/Shutterstock.
Warning: This story contains mild spoilers for Passengers.

I was so ready to like Passengers.

It had everything I want from a holiday-season blockbuster: sex, romance, and Jennifer Lawrence's cry face. And yet, I regret to inform you that this movie is not what it seems. It is not, as the trailer implies, a sci-fi love story. It is a horror film, masquerading as something you should bring your mom to see over Christmas break.

We begin this tale of woe on the Starship Avalon. We are several hundred years in the future, and this space equivalent of a Carnival cruise ship is transporting 5,000 brave souls to an interstellar colony called Homestead II, where they will somehow find purpose. Because the trip takes 120 years, and somehow the human life span hasn't increased despite astounding technological advances, the passengers must all be put into hibernation mode. The plan is for them to wake up four months before landing and take advantage of the full range of entertainment this ship has to offer.

The first hint that this is a horror movie comes when Chris Pratt's character, Jim Preston, wakes up from his deep artificial sleep 90 years early. He is understandably distraught at the prospect of spending the rest of his life trapped alone in this suburban-mall-meets-Apple-Store spaceship with only an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) for company. His descent into severe depression — he even considers suicide by jumping into space without a suit on — sparked by intense loneliness is actually a little harrowing to watch. (Honestly, I never thought I would feel true feelings about Chris Pratt one way or another, so this was a welcome surprise.)
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The upside: He will be less lonely. The downside: He basically just committed murder.

However, that in no way justifies what comes next. In a moment of desperation, Jim comes across Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in her pod, and mesmerized by her blonde beauty, stalks her online. Aurora — the Sleeping Beauty reference is no coincidence — is a journalist, whose father is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Wanting to break the story of a lifetime, Aurora signs up to make the first trip to Homestead II and back again, arriving on Earth 250 years after she first left. Except that will never happen because Jim, who is obsessed with this sleeping, voiceless woman, decides that he is in love with her ("She speaks to me!" he tells Arthur, after reading her work.) and wakes her up. The upside: He will be less lonely. The downside: He basically just committed murder. Strangely enough, this isn't even a spoiler. The movie very straightforwardly shows us Jim waking Aurora, rather than letting us find out when she does (she doesn't realize he woke her; she thinks it was a glitch), which could have added a modicum of suspense.

Horror movie clue No. 2: To makes things worse, Jim engages in a sexual relationship with the woman he has just sentenced to a long, slow, death — admittedly, surrounded by luxury amenities and sushi-serving robots — without telling her about his part in her fate. Much has already been written about how terrible this is, but let me just reiterate: He. Sentences. Her. To. Death. And. Then. Sleeps. With. Her. Without. Telling. Her.

Thanks to Aurora's blissful ignorance, the two fall in love, and everything seems hunky-dory (I mean, despite the impending death thing), until Arthur accidentally spills the beans.

I have to hand it to Jennifer Lawrence here. In a movie full of weak dialogue, ridiculous character development, and general creepiness, J Lawr delivers on the emotion. Her reaction as Aurora to Jim's betrayal is exactly what you'd expect from the victim in a horror flick. She's hurt, betrayed, and terrified. She's stuck sharing the last years of her life with a man who chose her as his lifetime companion without her knowledge.

The last piece of evidence that drives home the true nature of this film might be the most cringe-worthy. Roughly three-quarters through the film, Laurence Fishburne randomly shows up as a crew member whose pod has also malfunctioned. As the only person of color in this movie, his sole purpose is to point Jim and Aurora toward what's really wrong with the ship, and give them the tools to ultimately solve the problem, before dropping dead. As Bilge Ebiri over at the Village Voice put it: "Yep, in a movie that is literally about two white people stuck in the vast nothingness of space with nobody else around, they still find a way to have a Black guy show up just long enough to die."
There is a way for movies tackling complex ethical questions to make their audiences care about characters whose actions are morally questionable. Inglourious Basterds, for example, had me rooting for Christoph Waltz's Nazi commander in a way unbecoming for a Jewish girl who would most definitely have been his target. But sadly, Passengers takes what could have been an interesting debate about consent and glosses it over with cheesy romance and problematic sex. And not even a charming Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt press tour can make up for that.

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