‘Passengers’ Backlash Proves Nobody Can Handle Moral Complexity Any More

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By Jonathan McAloon | 7:24 am, December 28, 2016

The response to Passengers has been predominantly negative – and it’s not hard to work out why.

The plot to John Spaihts’ movie was not a secret – a version of the script has been knocking around Hollywood since 2007.

Chris Pratt, alone after having been accidentally unfrozen on a long space journey, becomes obsessed with a sleeping Jennifer Lawrence and wakes her, condemning her to live and die with him.

But from the trailers you would have thought this was an uncomplicated love story.

The studio was either saving up the central plot point as a twist, or (more likely) just had no idea how to market a morally complex plot to today’s audiences.

The full feature film was not so misjudged – and manages to deeply explore the moral questions posed. Yet still the backlash came.

And does it not point to a diminishing ability in audiences and arbiters of taste to appreciate, or even savour, morally complex entertainment?

Here’s what was presented to us: Pratt’s Jim Preston is woken early from his space slumber, discovers he will live and die alone, and spends a year tiring of the ship’s amusements. He ends up alcoholic, unstable and suicidal.

After almost firing himself out of the airlock, he considers waking another passenger, Lawrence’s Aurora Lane. While battling the need for company that will wreck someone else’s life, he becomes obsessed with her. He wakes her, wins her trust and love, and one year later she finds out what he did.

Pratt himself is deeply unsettling. When he meets Lawrence he seems like a stalker who hasn’t interacted with a human in a year, which he is.

At one point he accidentally repeats back to her something she said in a VT he had been watching before he woke her up. In fact his whole courtship routine is based on the word “trust”. It’s disturbing, and the better for it.

Lawrence, when she finds out, is distraught and almost bludgeons Pratt in his bed. When he tries to apologise over an oppressive intercom while also indulgently mixing in his own sob stories, she doesn’t call his actions abuse; she calls them “murder”.

With no way of holding him to account, she keeps out of his way. The stakes are high. The sci-fi setting is obviously fantastical, but the dynamic feels realistic.

The let-down is the ending (spoilers etc.), in which Pratt, having racked up acts of contrition and redemptive valour, is not only completely forgiven; his abuse is completely forgotten. The problem with Passengers isn’t the moral complexity, but how the film eventually abandons it. The tone of the end jars with the rest of the film.

Director Morten Tyldum has spoken about wanting people to “ feel discomfort” when watching the film.

I don’t know about you, but being uncomfortable – or at least unsettled – is the state I want entertainment and art to put me in sometimes. I understand this isn’t for everyone, and that your average viewer is likely to judge a film on the behavior of its characters.

But even the critics focused more on how Jim Preston was “creepy” than how that creepiness enhanced the film, and how the film dealt with this ambiguity.

Had Alfred Hitchcock made Vertigo today, which Tylden mentions as an inspiration and which is currently voted Sight and Sound’s best film of all time, what would people’s reaction be to Jimmy Stewart’s character?

He is a complete creep, and at the time audiences didn’t like seeing this matinee idol cast in the role. But at least this wasn’t the critics’ issue.

I’m not saying the two films are in remotely similar leagues. I’m saying that, if this is to be the popular and critical reaction to a film’s moral complexity, studios might be discouraged from taking on the next Vertigo when it does come along.

Even in the trailers for Passengers you can positively feel the Hollywood hedging. It wants to be something more difficult than the average blockbuster, but is marketed as a straight romance in case people can’t handle a complex story about obsession.

Judging from the reaction, they were right.