With Simple Changes, “Passengers” Could Have Succeeded as a Romance

The film's alarming premise spoils what could have been a great movie concept, but it didn't (or shouldn't) have to be this way.

December 27, 2016 at 12:21 pm

I haven’t seen Passengers, and after reading multiple reviews about how creepy and gross the actual premise of the movie is, I have no immediate plans to do so. I’m a total sucker for sci-fi romance, so I’m pretty bummed. Sure, the trailers looked cheesy, but they were cheesy in space, which I’m usually down for.

Massive spoilers ahead. For the movie I haven’t seen.

The trailers for the film presented the premise as follows: Two passengers on a 120-year voyage to a new planet accidentally wake up 90 years before the end of their journey. With no way to go back into hibernation, their fates are seemingly sealed: They’ll spend the rest of their lives together, in space, as the only two conscious people on a ship of more than 5,000. As luck would have it, they’re both young, attractive, and into each other, so they find ways to stay entertained. Eventually, vague plot elements require them to wear spacesuits and be brave in some way, and it’s heavily implied that them waking up might not have been an accident after all.

For the uninformed, it turns out that the trailers were highly misleading: Chris Pratt’s character wakes up first, and after a year of solitude, he selects an attractive victim to live out the rest of her life alone with him, depriving her of the life she would have had on the new planet they were heading for. Naturally, he lies to her and tells her they both woke up by coincidence. Many people are correctly pointing out that these actions amount to literal stalking and kidnapping, since Jennifer Lawrence’s character has no way of consenting to his choice—and clearly did not intend to spend the rest of her life alone with a stranger in space. But they fall in love anyway, and despite being traumatized when she learns the truth, she later forgives him, because this is mainstream entertainment, and creepy/dangerous men are (often) our romantic heroes!

In her review on The Daily Dot, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, who has actually seen the movie (unlike me), points out:

“It’s a story about a woman inexplicably falling in love with a stalker who ruined her life. And for some reason, we’re meant to root for this relationship.” What’s more, “The truth is that Jim ruined her life because he thought she was hot. At one point Jim’s actions are described as murder, but it’s more like a combination of murder, kidnapping, and rape.”

Yeesh.

It’s a bummer to think about how easily this concept could have actually been romantic instead of . . . well, creepy and gross. With just a few tweaks to the premise, this narrative could be reworked into an actual space love story that I would be excited to watch.

Allow me to demonstrate:

Imagine that this new version of Passengers starts out with a couple in an established relationship: Corey and Alex (any genders). They’ve been married for years and have a strong foundation of love and trust. Okay, fine, you’re falling asleep, but: Living on Earth totally sucks for some reason, so they decide to become colonists on a new world.

When they made the decision to go, Corey told Alex that it wouldn’t matter where they ended up, because the most important thing is that we’re together. Fast-forward to the ship, and Alex wakes up by accident with 90 years left in the journey. Oh, shit! Alex comes to realize they have no way of going back to sleep, etc. So Alex agonizes over whether or not they should wake up Corey, knowing that they’d be robbing Corey of their future on the new planet. Alex feels strongly that Corey would want them to be together, but just can’t work up the nerve to hit the button (or whatever).

Nearly a year passes, and Alex writes letters to Corey, all the while living in miserable solitude. One night, Alex has a dream/memory about a time Corey asked Alex to promise that they would always be together, no matter what happens. So Alex hits the button, keeping that promise. Corey wakes up, finally, happy to see Alex, but confused. Alex is tearfully honest right away about what happened and the choice they made. Corey is sad . . . but only because Alex was alone for so long. Of course Corey wants to be awake with Alex! Corey would have been devastated to wake up at the new world only to learn that Alex was gone. Corey says something powerful, like, “I don’t give a fuck about that new planet if you’re not there,” because there’s one F-bomb allowed in PG-13 movies and Corey is the “fun” character. Cue romance.

Corey is also more adventurous and figures out some things about the ship that Alex had missed, like maybe there’s a cool observation bubble where they have an amazing view of the stars. Sometimes Alex still feels guilty, and sometimes they’re both sad, but they are thankful to be together. They take care of each other. Montage of happy times, with picnics in the middle of the ship and fancy dates featuring robot bartender and making out on the table or whatever. As viewers, we have no doubts that Alex made the right choice, even if it was a tough one. We fall in love with each character through the other’s eyes.

THEN, they discover that something has jeopardized the ship, putting all passengers in danger. Alex and Corey have to team up to save everyone on board, risking their own lives in the process, and there are probably explosions and spacesuits. It’s a two-person job that Alex could not have handled alone, but together, they succeed. Afterward, they take comfort in knowing that by being awake together, they were able to save thousands of lives. It feels like fate. Romantic hug and cut to end: Many years later, the couple is now older and celebrating a milestone anniversary on the ship. They’re making video logs so that there’s a record of their lives. They dance to their wedding song, happy as ever. Because being together is what matters. Roll credits and single tear.

“But Alicia! What about the current ending, where all the other passengers wake up at their destination and find vegetation growing all over the ship?” Okay, you know what? That actually sounds pretty cool and vaguely solarpunk. Keep the space plants, but as a post-credits scene.

Cheesy, yes, but an actual love story instead of Hollywood’s toxic stalker narrative! And this is just one lazy example of how this premise could be altered to work—in the hands of a talented and not-tone-deaf screenwriter, this story could have been great. The plot the trailers promised could have been fun, but it doesn’t even have to be a romance to work—a group of passengers could wake up by accident and have to learn to live with each other, a la Lost. (That said, my single favorite part of my revised premise? You can insert literally any fandom ship for some quality spaceship AU fanfiction. You’re welcome.)

Seriously, though, can we be done with movies that twist violent premises into supposed “romance?” In the era of Fifty Shades, it’s not exactly surprising—and films portraying dangerous men as swoon-worthy romantic leads is not a new phenomenon. Horror movies masquerading as romance could be its own fucking genre.

But the way Passengers frames a non-consensual act of violence as the catalyst for a romance is such an obvious problem that it should have never made it beyond a first draft. The fact that the trailers are deliberately misleading makes it pretty clear that marketers knew this wasn’t going to fly. But hey, just slap some expensive CGI and hot actors in there and call it a day—Christmas, perhaps—and sell those movie tickets, right? I am the actual target consumer for sappy sci-fi romance, and I know we can do better than this. Please.

Alicia Kania

Alicia is a feminist mermaid on a never-ending quest to find the ultimate grilled cheese. She enjoys flower crowns, air conditioning, and singing to her cat. Please send her any and all funny animal gifs set to music. You can follow her on Twitter and visit her magical blog Alicia of Earth.