One of the dangers of writing about film is the ever-present danger of groupthink. We cinephiles love to consume movie culture which includes films themselves as well as criticism. In fact, criticism can be just as beloved as the art it criticizes. A Roger Ebert review is just as much a work of art as an Oscar-winning picture. But for those who read and write, the inherent risk is that their opinion will be shaped by those around them, particularly those with more influence. Some avoid this problem by seeing movies early and avoiding other critiques before writing their own. And others — myself included — don’t have such a luxury most of the time. We’re left languishing in this awkward space of writing our thoughts when the collective thought has already been determined.
Passengers is bound to be one of those movies forever caught up in the “danger zone” of culture: it’s one of those movies you don’t talk about in polite company or on Facebook comment sections. This is both a good and bad thing. Given time, it will have its staunch defenders — though these are likely to be fewer — and those vehemently opposed to it. And that’s the good thing for the most part. Art is not meant to be a stagnant medium that sits in a box where everyone generally agrees, “This belongs here.” The best art is provocative, and even bad art can redeem itself by stirring things up — sometimes. I’d posit most people feel Passengers isn’t one of those times. The problem is that square at the heart of Morten Tyldum’s sci-fi drama sit the very themes required of such conversations: grace, humility, and forgiveness.
“A Drowned Man Always Takes Others With Him”
The main issue surrounding and engrossing Passengers is addressed fairly quickly. And it’s impossible to properly address this film without talking directly about it. So spoilers ahead for those who have yet to watch.
There’s no getting around this issue: the decision Jim makes in waking Aurora from her hibernation is wholly and grossly wrong. That is not up for debate, and the film doesn’t actively argue otherwise. Despite Jim’s highly unfortunate circumstances and the argument that, yes, two people were needed to to end up saving the Avalon from certain destruction, his decision is horrific. There is no way to justify what he does, and there are a variety of sins you can compare it too: theft, murder, rape, etc. Whichever way you slice it, Aurora’s choices are made irrelevant and the path of her life is irreversibly shaped by Jim’s selfishness, sexism, and general creepiness.
The present problem is that Passengers moves on from this ethical problem quite abruptly. Once 5,000 lives are at stake, there’s no time to think about the fact that one person had their life stolen. But in the end, this life-and-death conflict raises the main argument the film has to combat Jim’s ethical issues: loneliness is a fate no one deserves.
To be honest, that’s not the strongest argument to make given the circumstances. In fact, one could soundly argue Jim does deserve loneliness, though only after his decision. The fact that Aurora has to face those questions — to leave Jim on his own or to be alone herself while Jim plays the hero — is all symptomatic of Jim’s original sin. Most every problem is Jim’s fault, and the film never quite address that part of the issue, instead choosing to leave it all on Aurora’s shoulders. It’s an unfair and sometimes cruel burden, but one that needs to be explored. That’s why Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Aurora is the cornerstone on which this entire project rests.
Aurora’s plight is, by far, the most interesting part of Passengers. She’s not always given the most distinct edges as a character, but Jennifer Lawrence’s performance gives her necessary weight. The look on her face when she discovers Jim woke her up is bone-chilling, and the fall-out of their relationship is incredibly visceral. The trauma, anger, and hurt is etched into each of Lawrence’s tiniest movements. One of the movie’s greatest failures is that she isn’t almost exclusively on camera for much of the second act: once their relationship falls out, the story rides on whether or not she will choose to forgive him. He certainly doesn’t deserve it… but that’s where things get interesting.
“Forgive and forget” is the tried-and-true statement people like to use in circumstances where a person has been wronged. Except everyone knows how utterly false that really is. To forgive does not require forgetting, and forgiving can often be impossible and traumatic for victims. To “forget” is to ignore the cruel nature of the human race: we irreparably harm each other on a daily basis, oftentimes leading to gaping wounds that turn into ugly scars. The heightened reality of Passengers allows for a scenario that is beyond what any of its viewers will ever directly encounter, but the bottom line still remains: one of these characters is supposed to be good and the other bad. That Passengers allows Jim to so easily redeem himself is — again — a problem. So is the fact that there’s any modicum of pressure on Aurora to make this decision.
But to discount Aurora in this exchange would be problematic as well. We as viewers could haggle over details; would Aurora ever forgive Jim had they not been required to work together to save thousands of lives? Maybe and maybe not.
But the simple fact of the film is that they are required to work together. Aurora is faced with the possibility of living out life alone on the Avalon — again, as a consequence of Jim’s decision. And in the end, she does forgive him, choosing to rest on companionship with Jim than the thought of living for herself. Aurora’s decision is an immensely challenging, one dripping with sacrifice.
It’s been said that in any situation where someone is wronged, a debt becomes present. Someone must pay that debt, and the person who committed the crime should rightfully be the one who shoulders the payment. However, the weight of forgiveness and sacrifice means the victim becomes the one who takes on the burden in lieu of the offender. Such a decision is too heavy for one review to tackle, and it does not happen lightly. Many wise men and women throughout history have tried to tackle this concept, most notably in the story of Jesus.
To forgive is one thing; to forgive entirely is another.
The Weight of Grace
As I mentioned earlier, to discuss Passengers is to venture into uncomfortable territory. It requires an overwhelming sense of grace and humility: the kind Aurora so undeservedly shows to Jim in the film. I say this as a caveat to my conclusion. In my limited scope, I recognize my opinion will likely be in the minority when it comes to this film. And I look forward to seeing how my perspective changes as time passes.
Again, there is no getting around the ethical dilemma at the core of Passengers. Jim is entirely selfish and undeserving of any goodness that comes his way from Aurora. Yet, he receives forgiveness and redemption in the end. Maybe the circumstances dictated it… or maybe Aurora truly is that forgiving. This is the central question that emerges from the film.
As for me, I’ve come to see that Aurora, not Jim, is the true hero of Passengers. She is the victim of this universal story: a life stolen, a dream ripped away. And yet in the end, something compels her to forgive and offer reconciliation to the man who wronged her. While I cannot and will not make light of Jim’s sin, it would be irresponsible to forego just how incredible Aurora’s decision is. That the film doesn’t address this more is troublesome: instead of digging deep into massive moral questions, it settles for action-adventure theatrics.
However, that doesn’t discount the fact that these themes and questions are present, or that they deserve to be considered. To forget them entirely is to lose the beauty in what can seem like an irredeemable movie. Somehow in the midst of Jim’s cruelty, misogyny, and dishonesty, Aurora sees it fit to forgive him. Perhaps we can offer Passengers that same grace.