[SPOILERS AHEAD. SHAMELESS, FULL-BODIED SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.]
You've probably heard by now, the movie Passengers held onto a secret in its promo trailers. And viewers are not responding well to it.
And this push back is for a good reason, as this plot secret makes one of the characters--Aurora, played by Jennifer Lawrence--follow a plot arc that seems designed for the convenience of the other character--Jim, played by Chris Pratt.
From a writing standpoint, this is just bad storytelling. Every character should have full agency. No character is a prop. Nothing should ever happen just because that’s how the writer wants the story to end.
But from a societal standpoint, there is an even more serious issue at hand. The issue of female characters being present for the convenience of the male characters. This is a widespread problem that fuels a mentality that women are present for the convenience of men in real life.
Ugh. It's just gross.
The truly grating part of this is that I am able to think of two very easy ways to solve this problem for the film.
I think this is worth talking about, because exploring how we create stories can help us create better stories. And science fiction and fantasy—movies in general—are in need of better stories these days.
So let’s talk solutions. And be warned--I’m not holding back at all here. If you have not seen the movie yet, severe spoilers ahead.
A Big Fat Spoiler
Before we dive into solutions, let's all start on what the big problem is.
So here is the secret in Passengers: Only one of them, Jim, wakes up by accident, as implied in the trailers. Aurora wakes up because Jim gets so desperate and lonely by himself after a year that he falls in love with her in her hibernation tube, digitally stalks her via the ship's digital records of its passengers, and then becomes so obsessed and so lonely that he finally decides to wake her up.
The loneliness in itself is understandable, in that it is so deeply human in its desperation.
The kicker is, of course, that in waking Aurora up, he dooms her to the same fate as himself--living out the rest of their life alone, with no one else, on the ship, never to see the planet they set out to reach, or reach any of the other plans they set out for themselves.
When Aurora finally finds out (due to a misunderstanding between Jim and an android ... just go with it), she is rightfully furious.
So what's the trouble? The plot bends so that she becomes okay with what has happened, and the conclusion of the film is that they have had this incredible private world all to themselves on the ship, and lived this epic love story, all by themselves.
I don't know a single love story that starts with one partner stealing the other's future. You?
Okay. So let's talk ways this plot could have been fixed.
Solution 1: Let Jim Die
There is a point in Passengers when Jim must go outside the ship and manually hold a guard door open while Aurora releases severe heat and flames into the atmosphere. You know, to keep the ship from exploding.
And for a moment, we think he really died. Because severe heat is not a thing humans do well. When he miraculously survives, this is the great turning point moment when Aurora forgives him for waking her up from hibernation and stealing her future from her.
He should have died. Scientifically, and also for the story’s best plot.
Prior to this moment, Aurora had been rightfully furious with Jim for waking her up from her hibernation, which robbed her of the life she had planned for herself.
But as Jim prepares for his heroic space walk, Aurora suddenly flips, realizing what it would mean to be left alone on this ship without him—total isolation for the rest of her life. The movie uses this moment to bring Aurora around to forgive Jim, putting her briefly in his shoes before he woke her up.
I really wish they had put her all the way in his shoes. Just kill Jim. Leave Aurora alone on the ship, angry and self-righteous, and see how long she makes it before she starts eyeing another hibernating passenger.
This is a darker ending, sure. But it says an awful lot about human nature, our need to connect, and how far we’ll go for our own survival.
Also, it’s just so Twilight Zone-y I can hardly handle it.
Solution 2: Gender Swap
Another way Passengers could have dodged the issue (at least the gender issue) is to simply switch the two characters’ genders.
First off, I’d love to see a mechanically adept, lower class woman save the ship, while a male, upper class writer does whatever she instructs him to as an assistant.
Given the gender politics in play, this turning of the tables does a number of good things for the plot all at once. It challenges gender stereotypes, empowers a female character, and turns the tables by making a male character victim of a female gaze.
Or hell, just switch one of their genders. Nothing wrong with that. Two female characters on screen in a movie with almost no other characters? Heck yes. Hollywood sorely needs to expand its definition of a romantic couple to include LGBT. Even a two-male cast would have been refreshing.
The one thing this solution does not do, is resolve the plotting issue of one character’s arc bending to serve the other’s. So this would be a less perfect solution than the first, but if you want to insist on a happy ending, it is still a hugely better way to tell the story.
Storytellers, Stop Taking the Easy Way
The solutions to these problems are often not so hard to come by. It just takes a bit of thinking.
And ya know, this thinking is really important. Movie creators need to be doing it. Authors need to be doing it. All creatives.
And all consumers of that art.
I can’t condemn Passengers the way some have. I’ll be honest, I really enjoyed the movie. I love the concept of being abandoned in space, and I love what Passengers did with it. I love that they are in an enclosed world that is supposed to offer technological solutions for essentially everything, and yet these solutions just keep failing them over and over. I even love the two characters (in part because I am a total sucker for both Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt).
But bending characters to serve a plot is like, I don't know, buying a pair of shoes, and then constructing your entire wardrobe around that pair of shoes. It’s just upside down. Create full, living characters. Then, listen to them. Let them tell you where the plot needs to go ... don't prescribe an ending and then force the pieces into the place!