Passengers, directed by the Norwegian Morten Tyldum, is the best science fiction movie of the current season, so if you have seen Rogue One or are simply skipping it, you have an even better option. Passengers is something quite rare: a science fiction film that is entirely fresh and new, not part of a series, and not a reboot, remake, or rip-off of other films. Passengers has a unique and gorgeous visual style, interesting music, and first rate acting — and it tells a fascinating story.
Passengers is set on the starship Avalon, which is transporting 5000 colonists to a new planet, Homestead II. The passengers and crew are in hibernation for the 120-year journey, but one of them, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up after only 30 years and has no way of getting back to sleep. At first, he decides to enjoy the luxurious lifestyle offered by the starship. But after a year, he is going mad with loneliness, so he awakens Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a sleeping beauty with whom he has fallen in love.
I found Passengers to be engrossing because, despite all the sci-fi trappings, it is essentially mythic. First of all, it calls to mind Adam and Eve. Then it folds in elements of Sleeping Beauty and Robinson Crusoe. But the most subversive and unsettling myth it recapitulates is the rape of the Sabines and similar stories about men in a state of nature kidnapping brides. Aurora falls in love with Jim, but she is also outraged by in effect being abducted by him. In the end, though, they have to stick together “for survival” (as Pratt’s character says in Jurassic World).
Passengers is also a recapitulation of European emigration and the American frontier in space, including the tensions between old world and new, or “back East” vs. the “wild West.” The Avalon is the epitome of technological civilization, including some Titanic (or RMS Titanic) hubris. Aurora also epitomizes civilization. She is a writer from New York City. Jim, however, is a mechanic from Denver. On the Avalon, Jim is in the equivalent of steerage, and in her old world, Aurora would have never noticed him. Jim, however, is needed on the frontier — he wants to live in a world in which his abilities to fix and build things matter — whereas Aurora is only going as a tourist. The frontier, however, subjects civilization to crises that can be mastered only by a rougher breed of men, like Jim, whose heroism and technological mastery save the day.
Passengers, in short, is a deeply paleomasculine film, and Chris Pratt again plays the heroic alpha male to perfection. Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, by contrast, is largely passive. First, she is a princess being wooed. Then she is a princess in a snit. But then the frontier comes crashing in, and she no longer has the luxury of lounging about. So, like many generations of frontier women before her, she finds it in herself to fight like a fury for survival.
Passengers is an overwhelmingly white film, both in its story and lead actors. (There is a brief appearance by Laurence Fishburne.) Its Faustian, man-against-adversity in space theme reminded me of The Martian. The spareness of a movie with such a small cast, its careful lingering over motives and moral questions, and its occasionally leisurely pace might annoy some viewers, but I found it completely engrossing. Some might feel that the action sequences near the end are pat and manipulative, but they had me on the edge of my seat. Because this is a fairy tale, of course they live happily ever after.
The reviews from the lying press have not been good, and Rogue One is hogging the spotlight. Passengers must be seen on the big screen, so see it while you can. Drag the normies to it after Christmas. Then recommend it far and wide. A movie this good deserves to do well.