Wednesday, 11 January 2017


There are two different ways to look at Passengers. One way is to think of it is as an SF movie which doesn’t make any sense, and the other is to look at it as a deeply creepy movie about gender politics, Stockholm syndrome and magical negroes. I am buoyed by vaunting ambition and the knowledge that no-one but Russian bots is actually reading any of this, so I am going to try to cover both bases.

Firstly, deep creepiness, because all the real reviewers have had a field day, and I can cover this sketchily. Look at the trailers for this movie, and you get the impression that it’s all about two loveable charming actors stuck together in a bad situation and overcoming terrible peril with the power of love. Yeah. That’s false advertising. What actually happens is that Chris Pratt’s character gets woken up early on a 120 year suspended animation voyage from A to B, and looking down the barrel of 90 years with no-one to talk to than a creepy robot barman who looks just like a slightly more human version of Tony Blair, he decides to wake someone else up to share the same hell with him. 

Let’s not get mixed up about what this means. Pratt knows he can’t get go back into hibernation, and neither can anyone else who might wake up. The ship is full of people with plans to land on another plan and spend the rest of their lives there, surrounded by a community. Pratt knows he’s going to die on that ship, never seeing the destination. Anyone he wakes up is facing the same fate, with just him for company. He’s not exactly killing another person, but he’s taking from them the life they wanted to live, with no possibility of reprieve, just so that he can have some company. That’s a horrible thing to do, no matter how much you might want to do it. Hiring Chris Pratt to play the man who has that choice, and makes it, blurs the edges too much. Pratt can’t help being loveable. I spent a big chunk of the movie thinking about how much more relateably awful the whole thing might have been if it had been someone like Jake Gyllenhall in the same role. 

Once Jennifer Lawrence wakes up to the reality of what’s happened, we get some of the sense of what’s happened; for an all too short period in the middle of the movie, her rage and anguish begin to express what’s horribly wrong in the middle of all this. Watching her in those moments, it was easy to imagine how a much better movie could have come out of throwing the same script at a pair of actors who were as equally matched for talent as they are for charm. Instead, the rage becomes a tantrum which is then overwhelmed by emergency drama and a reconciliation under fire which we’re expected to believe will turn into a lifelong love story instead of burning out once the adrenalin stops whistling round them.

It’s not just that it’s creepy bollocks, it’s that it’s the kind of creepy bollocks that gives men bad ideas. Manipulate women, lie to them, use them, and then use a mixture of charm and terror to get them to melt back into your arms. Too many kinds of wrong.

And I’ve just enough space for magical negroes; poor old Lawrence Fishburne also wakes up and gets to be alive for exactly long enough to explain that Chris Pratt was just doing what a man has to do, explain how the complicated techy things work, and bequeath a magical bracelet which will open all the doors they need to open to save themselves. Then, having done enough to save the white folks, he dies. Man, there’s a lot to hate about the politics of this movie. Let’s switch to the SF.

Firstly, I have to say that it’s a continuing marvel that they had $12 million to pay Chris Pratt (and $20 million for JLaw, so at least we’ve finally made a start on beating the pay gap) and untold millions to show us space stuff, and somehow not enough money to give Chris a beard that looked like it actually grew out of a human face. How hard can a convincing beard be? It’s literally the only effect in the movie which isn’t first rate. Everything else looks great. It’s scientific nonsense, but it looks great. Just the beard.

I have to feel sorry for the 4998 colonists and 257 surviving crew of the Avalon when it reaches it destination. They’ve packed food for 5258 people for four months as they coast in to the destination and train everyone in; Chris and Jen will eat about 10% of that as they eke out their lives waiting to die in space, so everyone’s on short rations when they get to Homestead II. Mind you, I had to work out the numbers later, so I spent a big chunk of the movie thinking it would be much worse than that. Anyhow, even if they like what Chris and Jen have done with the place, they’re still going to be cursing them for putting them on a low calorie diet.

Avalon is doing 50% of light speed, but the stars are still white all around them instead of being blue shifted to the front and red shifted behind them. Avalon also has a shield to the front, but nothing to the sides, as though space debris is like windshield bugs and could never possibly come at it from any other angle than straight ahead. It’s constantly rotating, and it’s implied that this is to generate gravity, but from time to time the gravity just goes away instantly without the rotation stopping.

The Homestead Corporation’s business model makes no sense at all. It takes 120 years for the Avalon to reach Homestead II, and that’s ship time. I’m not remotely technical enough to figure out the actual acceleration curve for Avalon, but 32 years into the 120 years it’s doing 50% of light speed and the drive is on the whole time so it’s definitely accelerating continuously; peak speed is going to be more than 50% lightspeed, and that means time dilation is a real factor. 120 years ship time is going to be quite a bit longer in Earth’s frame of reference. It’s going to add at least 10% to the time back on Earth. The Homestead Corporation’s business plan is spelled out for us; subsidise many of the passengers in return for a share in their income when they arrive. That’s spend now, get a return starting a minimum of 130 years later. Worse than that, the return is on a planet it takes 120 years to get to, in a universe where messages can’t travel any faster than light (we see this when Chris can’t phone home and get an answer before he dies of old age), so it’s going to be at least 200 years before - let’s imagine - a wire transfer could get the money back to Earth where it was first spent. Homestead Corporation must have the world’s most gullible investors.

But more than that, what kind of business plan has them doing return trips? The ship’s going to get back at least 260 years after it set out. It’s going to be as if the Santa Ana arrived back from dropping off to Columbus and collided with the Great Eastern. They’ll just put it in a museum. Indeed, the chances are that by the time it gets to Homestead II, they’ll be met at that end by an improved ship which can travel faster than light. Or even at a sustained 90% light speed instead of peak 50-60% Even if took them 100 years to come up with it, it would still get there ahead of the Avalon. And everyone talks about these journeys as though they’re happening all the time and everyone knows how they works, but literally no-one will ever have seen one of these things come back before they could have got on board one going out. 

This is terrible SF, because it’s SF which isn’t thinking about the world it has to have for any of the stuff we’re seeing to be happening at all.

What else? Oh yeah, the best single setpiece has gravity failing while Jennifer Lawrence is swimming in the pool; which forms a huge bubble that she gets trapped in and can’t swim out of. On the one hand, there’s absolutely no reason for a huge mass of water to rise up out of the pool just because gravity has taken the day off. Inertia hasn’t taken a holiday, and nothing moves unless something pushes it. On the other hand, the problem in moving in zero gravity is that you’ve nothing to push back against and you just float in the air or the vacuum. But if you’re in a big bubble of water, you can push back against that easily; that’s why swimming works in the first place, even though you’re floating in the water. Gravity has nothing to do with it, and loss of gravity doesn’t change that. Great looking bit, whether it’s got Jennifer in a swimsuit or not, but it makes no scientific sense.

I’d like to imagine that they kept JLaw, hired Jake Gyllenhall, and had no more money than it took to make the first Solaris, so that they wound up making a movie about people dealing with a horrible choice and the horrible consequences, and had nothing left over to distract us with brilliant looking stupid effects. I bet they’d actually have wound up with more money in the bank. I’d have been a lot less fed up at the end of it too.

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