Hard Sci-fi Made Me Cry

Tired of the remakes, the reboots, the “let’s see how much more blood we can squeeze out of this turnip” output of today’s Hollywood? I think you’ll find Passengers a refreshing change.

If like me, you didn’t rush out to see it in the theatre, it might’ve been because of blurbs like this one from IMDB: “A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.”

Sounds like a snore, doesn’t it?

It is rated PG-13, just under two hours long, and tagged as adventure, drama, and romance. What it is, however, is a story about love, redemption, and forgiveness. It’s about making the best of life, even when things don’t go as planned. It’s about the pioneering spirit, about a positive future, about what a man and a woman can achieve together.

“But wait, you said this is hard sci-fi.”

Yes, I did. And I stand by it. It’s science fiction because of the setting, a spaceship traveling between the stars. It’s hard sci-fi because it’s closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey in that it’s an extrapolation of current knowledge, than to the space-fantasy cum turnip known as Star Wars.

But what this movie actually is, is a great example of using science/setting as a trope, a literary device for delivering a character-driven story. The science is not the point of the story, but there is enough verisimilitude that it has a real feel to it (this comes from someone who can get really picky about the scientific details).

Onward to the specifics…

The Avalon is a colonization ship traveling at half the speed of light. Its various decks spin for gravity. The passengers and crew are in hibernation pods.

The ship design is breathtaking. This is the ship I’d want to take to the stars. The ship is not just a colony ship. It’s a luxury liner with a huge swimming pool, plenty of recreation facilities, sports and entertainment, bars and restaurants, and luxury suites. I can’t tell you how refreshing this was. Personally, I’m done with stories where humans are living in squalor, wallowing in their own filth because while we retain the technology to travel between stars or planets we must show humans as victims of science and technology who’ve lost the ability to fix the plumbing or take out the garbage.

Some of the people on the Avalon are passengers who’ve paid full fares. Others are people with valued skill-sets (blue-collar people like mechanics, gardeners, and midwives) who are getting a discounted trip in exchange for a percentage of their future earnings. Most of these people are going on a one-way trip. They are true pioneers seeking adventure, open spaces, and the opportunity to do things like build a home with their own hands. I loved this “unique” concept of competent, hard-working people willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get to work.

This movie showed, rather well, that you don’t have to have a post-apocalyptic setting, the worst elements of human nature, wars, or refugees to tell a good science fiction story.

Now, onto the plot. Spoilers ahead…

Within this setting, we have Jim, a mechanic played by Chris Pratt, who has the dubious honor of being the first hibernation pod failure in history. He quickly realizes that he’s the only one awake and that the ship won’t reach its destination for 90 years.

For a year, he tries to find a solution to the problem, with Arthur, an android bartender (Michael Sheen) as his only company. Despite his best efforts, Jim can’t break into the crew’s hibernation chamber to wake them up. Even on this ship with luxury accommodations, with everything he needs to survive, he despairs. He wants human companionship. So he agonizes over waking up a woman with whom he’s fallen in love. It’s an agonizing decision because, by waking her up, he is condemning her to his own fate—to die on the ship before it reaches its destination.

Desperate after a year of being alone, he sabotages her hibernation pod.

Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes to find that only one other passenger is awake. He’s been alone for a year, trying to find a way to wake the crew. As more and more things go wrong aboard the ship, Jim fixes as many things as he can while he courts her. They fall in love, and enjoy a year of “accidental happiness,” but on the night that Jim plans on proposing to her, Aurora discovers that he’s been lying about her hibernation pod’s failure. She’s furious and refuses to have anything to do with him.

The cascade of shipboard failures continues and Gus (Laurence Fishburne), a member of the crew, wakes. His sudden appearance is not a deus ex machina. It was subtly set up in the background of Jim’s and Aurora’s courtship. Gus’s imminent death from progressive organ failure is a metaphor that mirrors the ship’s demise. In the short time he is alive he not only gives them the tools and knowledge they’ll need to fix the ship, he plants the seed of forgiveness by asking Aurora if, had her pod been the first to fail, she’d have chosen to live out the rest of her life alone.

Jim and Aurora work together to save the ship and everyone aboard, but this is still not a “men with screwdrivers” story because everything that happens, every technical failure, every element of plot (i.e. events) furthers the development of the characters and their relationship. After their attempt to fix the ship, the auto-doc (a device that can perform any and all procedures that a human doctor can) declares Jim dead. Aurora faces the horrifying prospect of living out the rest of her life alone. She now understands Jim’s desperation and fears and forgives him for “taking her life.” She overrides the auto-doc’s built-in safeguards and uses it to bring him back to life.

Jim continues his quest for redemption by figuring out how to use the ship’s auto-doc to put Aurora back in hibernation. She refuses, choosing to live out the rest of her life with him.

Although their HEA (happily ever after) is implied—we never get to see them grow old or die—we know that they had one. In the middle of the ship’s promenade, the tree that Jim planted (the ship carried stores of animal and plant life) is thriving, and surrounding it, an Eden.

This is where I cried.

The take-away…

I didn’t come away from this story remembering the technicalities, the “scientific” plot holes, the hand-wavium. I came away from it remembering two people who overcame their flaws, overcame the failures of technology, and made the best of their “accidental happiness.” I will always remember it as a love story, not a story about gadgets and events.

I found Passengers to be a great example of a story where plot evolves from character choices rather than one where characters are tropes that serve an artificially contrived series of events. And it did this without resorting to the tired, old techniques of doom-and-gloom, we’re-all-going-to-die, there’s-no-hope-for-mankind storytelling.

This story also shows how to marry romance (or any story with a strong human element) to science fiction—even sci-fi that’s closer than not, to the hard end of the spectrum—and still deliver a satisfying ending. It accomplishes this great feat by only including enough “real” science to make the story plausible and concentrates instead on making the characters relatable.

I was truly impressed.

  • James Sanders

    I also enjoyed Passengers–for all the reasons you listed. I was much more wrapped up in the characters than the Sci-fi aspect, though it carried the plot along nicely. No doubt you know the following, but it’s something we as writers need to consider to make our prose string, our plots significant, and our characters as real as possible.

  • John M Olsen

    I’d heard about Passengers, but it wasn’t on my “to see” list. I may reconsider and see it. I enjoy hard SF, and if it’s got a good story behind the characters as well, I might even become a fan.

  • Geoarrge

    That’s one of the things I’m getting stuck on (apart from breaking through my artist’s block), coming up with interesting characters. I think I’ve got a couple of interesting settings, good plots outlined, but fall flat at building a roster of interesting people.