One of several very divisive films last year was the Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt 2016 vehicle Passengers. A big budget studio film from a high concept original script, great visual effects and production design and two stars at the peak of their popularity – it’s Star Lord AND Katniss Everdeen in the same picture! – gave audience much to like. Others, however, rightly derided its thin script and hackneyed generic qualities as the film never abandons its basic romantic comedy structure. It’s a futuristic Titanic with some features of Robinson Crusoe with a dash of The Shining. It’s a fun movie, but begins to unravel at the slightest scrutiny. But it is one of those rare cases where the film’s criticism, instead of wilting under this kind of picking of nits, begins to make the film more interesting. In other words, the reason the film doesn’t work is the reason that it works. I read Passengers as an exemplary demonstration of the American Self that reveals something about the tradition of the myth of the American hero, its vulnerabilities, and its projection into a future space to indulge the American settler mythology that is an ideological cornerstone of American society.
Passengers takes place on a kind of interstellar Mayflower. Five thousand people are in hibernation for a 120 year journey to a distant planet called “Homestead II.” The ship, traveling at half the speed of light through space, runs into an asteroid belt that damages the ship, accidentally waking up Jim (Chris Pratt). The trouble is that Jim has only been sleeping for thirty years, and he finds out that there are ninety to go. Despite his handy skills, he is unable to reactivate his sleep chamber and then has to face the growing reality that he will forever be stranded on this luxury cruise. So he’s stranded on the ship – and Act I is basically Pratt exploring the ship, which is basically The Disney cruise in space complete with holograms, android bartenders, automatic food dispensers and cooks, swimming pools, the works of convenience. Yet he’s lonely, and after a year, becomes interested in one of the other sleeping passengers, (Aurora, none other than sleeping beauty herself) Jennifer Lawrence, whom he wakes up at the start of Act II.
We are told that Earth has become highly undesirable – crowded, polluted, corrupt – and this becomes the cause of the Homestead mission. But the mission is some sort of commercial enterprise. It’s not filled with radicals or exiles, nor is the mission guided by a global or nationalist cause of exploration (a la Star Trek). There are a couple hundred paid crewmembers, who seem to be in the same situation in leaving Earth behind too. But the gaze of the film stays with the paying passengers on this corporate Mayflower. The ship, Avalon, (a name meaning “isle of fruit” in Arthurian legend) acts as a kind of human arc, is loaded with plants at the ready for terraforming a new colony. The ship’s design was modeled after a wobbly spinning seed falling from a sycamore tree.
A key part of this narrative is the theme of fresh beginnings, of leaving a world believed to be old and corrupt for a new frontier. This is a key part of settler myth, and one that is vital to the settler myths which were formative in the American identity. Americans are a people that view the world as a boundless frontier. There is at time a very naïve optimism for the world and for the hero to manifest himself in the world. R.W.B Lewis writes, “Emerson suggested … “probably no other civilized nation, has at any period … so completely thrown of its allegiance to the past as the American. The whole essay of our national life and legislation has been a prolonged protest against the domination of antiquity in every form whatsoever” (159). Americans, in this sense, have contempt for history, viewing history as a repressive hindrance. Our expectations politically and socially are preoccupied with newness from JFK’s “New Frontier” to Reagan’s “Morning in America” to Obama’s “Hope. “That is the true myth of America,” writes D.H. Lawrence, “She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing off the old skin, towards a new youth. It is the myth of America.” (1)
R.W.B. Lewis in his classic study of 19th Century American literature, American Adam, notes that the American Adam myth/ideology developed over time from the Puritans to the mid 19th Century, and reached its apotheosis as a theme in American literature in the 19th Century among a cross section of literary giants including Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville and Henry James.
Lewis notes that the roots of the American Adam idea stretch further back, however, to the first settlers, who were so shocked culturally to be uprooted from the Old World and tossed into uncertainty on a new continent, that their initial folklore was one beset by fear – fear of natives and of the wilderness in which they lived beyond the sacred canopy of Christendom. The prominent lore at that time was the captivity narrative that centered around fear of being possessed by the devil, or else being kidnapped and turned savage. As the settlers grew more comfortable in the new environs, they found a way to use myth to help them, and in doing so, referred to the reality they knew – the Bible. There they found a myth of the new world as an Eden, a new wild Canaan to be settled. And they set out to redeem the land through toil and drive back the native horde. They viewed their own efforts as blessed by God, and the settlers would be God’s Adams and Eves. They would come to see themselves as chosen people, and their holy land, their New World Zion, would be the place of salvation. To recall the thesis of Carolyn Merchant’s Reinventing Eden, the fallen land – that is to say, the wilderness – could be redeemed by the industrious labor of the Adams and Eves.
Passengers follows the five major plot turns of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Crucifixion/Resurrection and Redemption.
In a sense, Passengers plays like an Edenic fantasy of this new world, but with a science fiction redux. Jim is born from the starship egg-like capsule. The wilderness of space, in its empty boundless possibility, has been made sublime on Avalon, turned into a technological wonderland, an innocent garden of earthly delights. The ship, which we are told is abundant, omniscient, omnipresent, impregnable, fail safe, is a kind of corporate recreation of the garden. What is impressive about Avalon is its seeming ease of use, its convenience. It is, really, if one were to be stranded anywhere, the most ideal place to be stranded, capable of providing every possible material good and comfort. It also makes it not really ever to have to struggle to live as one might in any other setting. Because of it’s extreme convenience, it allows the individual to bask in the ominipotent possibilities of technology and remain Disney-cocooned in childhood. Avalon is a perfect depiction of Henry James’s vision of America as a “hotel civilization,” a place where there is the impression that everything can be done, that anything can be created, no challenge cannot be overcome. It is a place where the beds are always tucked in, the street lights are always on, breakfast available 24 hours a day. The effort to be always on, always at the ready, overcome any obstacle thanks to God’s blessing, the omniscient halo of technology, reason, and American reinvention can do anything. The trap of this type of culture is that it can encourage a kind of perpetual adolescence girded with basic American entitlement, grandiosity, optimism ethnocentrism and exceptionalism.
We do not get much backstory to our heroes. It is unimportant. What is important is their desire for a future that is precisely unrooted in the past. When Jim is born, he enters the second womb of Avalon, the manifestation of American hotel civilization, a starship Eden that is the myth of white privilege. But Avalon by itself has its limits and has no Other to challenge or motivate him. If he could remain content with the ease and comfort of Avalon, Jim would remain an adult in frozen in arrested adolescent development.
It is at this point that the film can be frustrating, where it presents itself as an indulgent and narcissistically unself-aware American white heteronormative male fantasy. It’s so unaware that it precisely and overtly conveys the American white settler urmythology. So of course our Adam and Eve are white pilgrims. Of course the film’s perspective aligns itself with the male protagonist’s gaze. And of course Aurora is Jim’s dream girl just as he wanted (what if she woke up and was completely unstable or if they never got along?) Of course the android bartender is a proper English servant. Of course the ship steward is black. Of course the robot waiter in the Mexican cantina speaks Spanish. The film doesn’t fail to fulfill every single Disney cruise stereotype. That said, I think the director should have detected these flat tropes and have interpreted them with elements of irony or satire to distance the audience from the world of luxurious convenience that the film is apparently enamored with.
Only this is a cruise in which Jim not only wakes up his dream girl, but has her trapped so there is no rival for his affections, and little else to do but to be stuck with him. These elements of the film are kind of creepy. Handled with the lens of a different genre, into psychological thriller, it could turn into elements of the Shining … which appear to be latent elements in the film left unexplored. (3) Notice the similarity of The Shining’s Jack (Jack Nicholson) and Jim both talking to English bartenders. Jack and Jim share another trait that is telling – they are both narcissists who are frustrated by the call to introspection and terrified of solitude. For Jack, this meant hallucinations and a decent into a murderous and abusive mania, purging his inner turmoil on his family. For Jim, a suicidal depression which he would try to salve by using Aurora, who is a writer, and a more successful one than the overseer of the Overlook Hotel. She actually uses her solitude to “get some writing done,” an introverted writer’s productive dream – finally, she has no interruptions, no need for a day job can finally get some writing done. And now the hotel even takes care of itself. Jim, for his part, wasn’t able to embrace the sacred aspects of solitude, and required a woman to mirror him – which The Shining’s Wendy (Shelly Duvall), could not do for that other blocked writer, Jack in their marriage from hell.
The Avalon deserves to be interpreted a bit cynically, as Herman Melville and Henry James, might. James, in particular, knew that the fall was vital to mature. Only through mistakes, limits, failure, disillusionment or existential crisis can innocence lead to wisdom. The fall is essential. (2) In Passengers, that kind of grounded cynicism soon sets in to Jim, who struggles with his loneliness in this technological horn of plenty. In drama it is said that conflict creates character, and Passengers’ drama begins with Jim’s inner conflict – he takes to drink, gets lazy, grows a depression beard, and ideates his suicide. His last hope is his idealization of Aurora, and waking her his fall into sin.
Aurora fulfills the “redemptive woman” trope common in frontier literature. And it so happens that Jim and Aurora are a good match and for a time, their relationship is sweet and deepens. Or, so it seems. She could have Stockholm Syndrome and be trapped with this narcissistic creep. It turns out that when she inevitably finds out the big lie, they both enter a dark night of the soul.
As their relationship falls apart, the ship furthers its decay, and they have to scramble to save the ship and each other. Things are topsy-turvy as the ship stops spinning and they loose artificial gravity for a while. A deck chief (Lawrence Fishburne, cast here in another bad racial stereotype as a, what James Baldwin called “happy darky”) wakes as well, and helps them understand the ship. He is quickly and conveniently dispatched as soon as his use is completed. Some engine core thingamagig is going critical and Jim has to go into some sort of space tube to release the fire, sacrificing himself, saving Aurora and redeeming his soul. He is blasted with fire, then blown into space, where Aurora races to nab him, pull him inside and resurrects him with that medical chamber screenwriter Jon Spaihts also wrote into his Prometheus screenplay. By the time that Jim is resurrected, he has reached a new level of maturity. He finds a way to get Aurora back to hypersleep, offering this possibility for her in the medical chamber.
But after the tribulation of repairing the ship, saving all the other passengers, their life priorities have changed and live their lives on starship Eden. The film stops short of telling us how they lived, or if they had descendants. But what we do get is the final shot of the film, when the crew wakes up 90 years later, they enter an Avalon that has been turned into a living garden growing around a center tree of life and/or knowledge.
It’s been said that screenplays should find their conclusion in a way that isn’t too obvious, yet also feel like it was the only possible ending. This cannot be said with Passengers, because what is most interesting about the movie is the routes it does not take. A lot of what ifs play as much more interesting stories. What if Jim and Aurora were a terrible match? What if Jim woke Aurora and found that she reminded him a bit too much of his nagging mother back on earth – you know, the place he was trying to get away from? What if they were more like Jack and Wendy from the Shining? What if Aurora had some serious mental issues and Jim tried to conspire to get her back into the sleep chamber? What if Aurora was the hero and was trapped a la Misery, and had to conspire to kill a creepy Jim? What if Jim woke up more people? Or maybe a whole group was woken and there was an Agatha Christie type mystery – which one was first, and why? Or maybe he would tire of Aurora and begin to wake up more passengers, looking for a friend. Or if Aurora was a disappointment, he might try woman after woman, creepily trying to fill his empty inner void by collecting women. Or what if Aurora, unsatisfied with Jim, woke up more people? Maybe she would need help to dispatch evil Jim, or perhaps to find a better suitor. Or what if another crisis arose and they were forced to wake up more people? Or what if there was a glitch in the androids and they suddenly thought that Jim was not an authentic passenger, or revoke his ticket, and they try to boot him from the ship a la United Airlines?
In short, what if all is not well in hotel civilization? What if the story treated its subject matter with the lens of satire or thriller, (or better yet, both, which would be something akin to An American Werewolf in London), to get at these elements? We should get a sense the destructiveness of the adolescent male fantasy. We should get a franker portrayal of the pathology of using another human to fulfill one’s own character deficit, which is the dark side of Disney culture. A hotel civilization has a long shadow. Passengers should at some point pass by planet Herman Melville, who masterfully depicted this dark side in Moby Dick and Billy Budd. Or the Avalon could pass by planet Stephen King, who in countless stories terries with greed, selfishness and violence of people in contrast to nostalgic mid-century Americana. There is a recurring trope even in science fiction about how the adventurers find some sort of manifestation of their great desire or fear. Different versions of this pop up in Solaris, Stalker, Sphere, even Lawrence Fishburne’s own Event Horizon, all of which are better movie. In any event, Passengers goes to show that even movies don’t work, they eh, kind of work, and can be informative in this lost wax, by the implication of what isn’t there. If it only embraced a little more Rod Serling and a little less John Hughes, Passengers may have been a modern classic.
(1) “The American was to be acknowledged in his complete emancipation from the history of mankind. He was to be recognized now for what he was – a new Adam, miraculously free of family and race, untouched by those dismal conditions which prior tragedies and entanglements monotonously prepared for the newborn European.” R.W.B. Lewis. American Adam, p 41.
(2) “James regarded the contemporary ideal of man as Adam in Paradise as adolescent rubbish; ‘every man who has reached even his intellectual teens,’ he wrote, ‘begins to suspect that life is no farce … that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths.'” …. (Adam) appeared …. ‘ a dull, somnolent, unconscious clod, as an ‘innocent earthling,’ as ‘imbecile, prosaic, unadventurous..” R.W.B. Lewis. American Adam, p 58.
(2) A number of critics, including Nerdwriter suggested that the film would have been improved by telling the story out of sequence, beginning with Aurora waking, meeting Jim, who suspiciously is the only other person, and desperately hawks over her, and the big reveal in the middle of the movie, that he woke her on purpose, then let the audience know the story from his perspective, would have made the film better. It’s one of several