This essay is part of my year-in-review series. I want to show you what’s wrong with how “Passengers” thinks about the future and, implicitly, how a story could think about the future well, in 10 easy lessons. The first five consider how the movie looks at society, and the latter five consider psychological errors.
I go to such lengths on the assumption that this story typifies a liberal culture that doesn’t produce visions of the future anymore, in order to attempt some partial explanations as to why this should be. So I’m looking both backward and forward, confident that we can learn from these mistakes and get ready for something better.
“Passengers” is a Christmas gift most moviegoers have rejected—despite the fact that its stars, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, boast Oscar prestige and box office success, as does the talent behind the camera. The studio trusted it enough to pay $110 million for it, even before advertising costs. Nevertheless, audiences have refused to make it a hit. It has persuaded neither the public nor the critics, in its first two weeks, that it has anything interesting to say about its theme, how mankind should face its space-traveling future. Audiences are right and I will explain why.
‘Passengers’ Disappointed The Public And The Critics
The story has a simple, if impossible, setup: a cryogenic bed on a spaceship malfunctions, waking a man up. This, we are told, had never happened and was completely unforeseen and unprepared for—in a future where space travel is routine, like cruises are with us. Then we get to follow this man around, see how he faces his lonely mortality.
You know, walking into this kind of movie, that some terrible technical problem will occur and miraculously get fixed in the third act. The poster tells you it will be a romantic story and the rating tells you everything else you need to know. The trailer advertises the dangers and we just know, unhappy ends are as intolerable with expensive movies as happy ends are implausible. The only shocking thing about the story is its mediocrity.
Or maybe there’s another shocking thing: it has interesting suggestions about what’s wrong with our individualism, which is the deep sense people have that they’re in it alone, like our protagonist.
1. Fake Optimism About The Future Doesn’t sell Anymore
Hollywood has only one new genre about the future: Young Adult fiction, featuring poorly written stories about kids involved in world-historical dangers and adventures. These stories appeal to a deep hysteria in their youthful audience and persuade them that there’s no future.
“Passengers” is the opposite of such vague pessimism. It tries to sell a vague optimism about how young people could be happy together. Leading lady Jennifer Lawrence, who is pretty in a moral, child-like way, tells us we’re all passengers: we have to somehow make it together through life. Who can disagree with that? But then again, what use is it? The plot has absolutely nothing to do with our future, good or bad.
2. If There Is A Future For America, It Includes Christians
This is a point “Passengers” proves by reducing the alternative to absurdity. It portrays a future where new planets are constantly colonized, but not a word is breathed about faith, and no reason is offered as to why anyone would do it. You would think the writer had no idea America was settled by Christians. Colonization is a mere tourism—it’s for life, but you’re just another lonely guy. You don’t know anyone and have nothing in common with them.
Writers who want to talk to Americans about their future had better read Tocqueville on the Puritan Founding of New England. This way, they might learn that Christianity is the source of the hope for a better future and a newer, more humane organization of society. Without this kind of hope, new worlds turn out to be mere attempts to avoid boredom. Every tech startup relies on some hope of a better future, but not the attempt to make a world fit for human dwelling?
3. The Future Includes Technology, Not Just Pretty Pictures Of It
“Passengers” is a two-actor show. (They have a black actor on screen for maybe 10 minutes, before he dies because everything in his body is failing. Really.) But they spent $100 million on the setting—a space ship. The shape of the ship is not easily grasped and there is no explanation for its strangeness. No knowledge of the ship’s workings or requirements. We have no reason to pay attention to the vehicles that are supposed to bring about the greatest transformation in society since Columbus discovered America.
The suggestion is that an infinite source of energy makes your desires come true. The protagonists’ desires turn out to be as banal as you can imagine. In the future, we’ll just have more of what we’ve already got, but gratis. That’s bad writing. The technology really matters to us—it’s not about gadgets and entertainment, it’s about whether we can develop the powers to get us to where we can start over, as mankind has done several times before!
4. Liberalism Is Out Of Ideas About The Common Good
“Passengers” shows us that even colonizing the future is about preserving the American class structure, where small numbers of elites live in a shocking opulence that’s rendered ugly and inhuman by modern art. Some of this is funny: the liberal critique of capitalism voiced by the female protagonist is leveled against a guy who is far more productive than her and far less wealthy. She’s a caricature of liberal journalism, a spoiled brat doubling as ingrate.
But even aside from that kind of dialogue, what common good is possible if the ship of the future is all about emphasizing the differences between millionaires and the rest of us?
5. We Lack A Way Of Thinking About The Future That Doesn’t Compromise Our Humanity
There are some space stories like “The Martian” that are all about super-human use of technical knowledge most of us can never have. Then there are stories like “Passengers,” in which the protagonists, as well as all other human beings involved in colonization, are treated like mindless creatures. They’re sub-human, really: they have no idea what’s going on at all.
Both approaches are wrong. One reduces us to technical knowledge, while the other denies we have minds. Instead, we need a human relationship to the technology by which we hope to reach the future. The passengers in this story know nothing about the ship or any part of it. It works and then it doesn’t; they’re supposed to save it urgently from a position of blithe ignorance. This makes the plot ridiculous.
6. Individualism Is A Dead End
The rom-com second act of the movie collapses when the girl yells at the guy, “You murdered me!”
This is because she was awakened from coma to love against her choice, at the very moment she has learned that love makes her truly human, and she has untold decades to look forward to, in the midst of plenty and security. Apparently, she cannot think life worth living unless it’s under her control, at her whim, the consequence of her arbitrary choice.
Is this the future of humanity? Here’s a character who knows nothing about the ship on which she lives, but wants tyrannic control of every circumstance and choice in her life. One suspects the technical ignorance and moral obsession with control are connected. Deep down, there is a desperation about not knowing how to live that leads to anguished, angry loneliness.
7. How You Live Your Life Is What Matters
The hysteria of individualism is the inevitable consequence of the ideology of meaning. The girl is in search of meaning and she is also sure she is the maker of the meaning of her own life. There’s a contradiction there. Instead of trying to love and be loved in turn, her insistence on who she is leads her to ruin her romance.
8. Part Of How You Live Is About Community
The story suggests the girl cannot live with other people. She is restless. Space-travel and time-travel appeal to her desire to have it all without really being a part of anything. “Passengers” offers us a simple experiment: take two typical people from 2016 America, and put them in a situation where no necessity binds them but their own human nature. They’re alone with each other. Would they be able to live together as human beings?
The answer is not a confident affirmation. This should interest halfhearted libertarians who assume that future communities will build themselves or that technology will supplant them. Learning about people is not the same as learning the arts and sciences that gives us our powers, our cities, and our way to the future. In “Passengers,” community is replaced by eating, doing science work, and what you could call entertainment. If the future is hell, it’s because it’s the Google campus. That’s not real human togetherness.
9. Learning To Speak About Being Human Is The Only Way Forward
The movie’s first act is Chris Pratt’s solo performance. He discovers his accidental loneliness and it shows the essential loneliness of man facing the world. Without a woman, life is not worth living. What’s the point of using the knowledge he has, or getting new knowledge? There is no companionship for him. There’s no God there to give him a woman, but there is a woman within reach. You could say that the decent pride of man is on display when he attempts suicide before he dares take a woman’s future away by waking her up from the coma.
But what if he just has no idea whether he’s worth loving, even as the only man in the world? Is it a surprise? He’s so alone in the world, he’s willing to run to another world, in a separate future, with people he knows nothing about, and his only partner in conversation a robot who knows less about human being than he himself. Most of love is conversation, and the young man has no art or science to help him there.
10. Love Is The Mood Of Knowledge
Once the young man opens himself to the possibility of love, with all the childish shyness typical of young men in America, life becomes worth living. From the job he can do to the exhilarating experience of exploring space, with all the danger and all the beauty out there, he begins to be able to take an interest in things, partly to share them with the woman. Love makes knowers of us and, really, most of us are going to get self-knowledge not from TED talks, but from friends and lovers. This is the insight that should have guided the writing of the story—instead, it’s treated like a small part of the rom-com section.
So these are my observations. Had the writer learned these lessons and fixed his draft, the movie would have been good. Not great, mind you, but good enough to turn fake humanism into true humanism. Presumably, writers in Hollywood also need inspiration or good luck to make great movies, but that’s why they get paid. You’re getting this gratis, and it’s far more than you’d get for the money it takes to see most movies.