[Spoilers for Passengers, 24 (TV Show), What Lies Beneath and No Country for Old Men.]
You know what got me into storytelling? An episode of Star Trek. Specifically Season 5, Episode 25: The Inner Light. Written by Morgan Gendel and Peter Allan Fields, the episode was released in 1992, but I wouldn’t see it until 1997 when I was nine years.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d seen dozens of TV episodes and films before this. But The Inner Light emotionally affected me in a way that very few moments of storytelling have managed to do.
Sci-fi was and still is my first love. No other genre dominates my screenplay work to quite the same extent. The number of stories that you can tell through the lens of science-fiction is essentially unlimited. Just watch the last 36 seasons of Doctor Who.
But alas, sci-fi is always difficult to get on the silver screen. Especially when studios can make much more profit on genres such as horror or comedy. That’s why I’ve always made sure to go see any big budget sci-fi film on opening weekend. Even if it doesn’t fully interest me. Thus, this weekend I went to see Passengers.
Fundamentally, Passengers falls into the hole which many other sci-fi stories find themselves in: A great idea with a terrible execution or ending.
While Jim’s (Chris Pratt) decision to release Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) from hibernation is sort of understandable considering what he’s been through, there is nonetheless no argument that (morally) he is completely in the wrong. As the film itself points out, he has essentially murdered the person he claims he’s in love with. A death sentence that takes 80 years to fulfill is still a death sentence.
While there are occasional overtures indicating the film is aware its hero has committed a terrible act, none of these hints are ever pursued. Rather the film prefers to tack on a Hollywood-style action packed third act and wrap up everything in a neat bow and a happy ending.
Since Jim is the person that we as an audience are meant to identify with, it is completely unacceptable that he gets away with committing such a heinous crime. The hero is (usually) someone we as an audience need to aspire to be. Admittedly while that might not be true in every single film, Passengers makes it clear that John is meant to perceived as the hero of the story. Flawed yes, but a hero nonetheless.
But what he does to Aurora is beyond the pale. To sentence someone to what is essentially a prison for your own sick satisfaction (even it’s not sexual) is still the height of egotism and villainy. Rather than being a willing and equal partner in their relationship, Aurora essentially represents a fantasy for Jim. A fantasy that he is willing to lie, cheat and betray to achieve.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a character getting away with doing something immoral or illegal. No Country for Old Men is a great example of that. The problem is when the hero (specifically the person we’re meant to “root” for) gets away with doing something immoral or illegal.
The TV show “24” often comes to mind when I think about this issue in storytelling. Jack Bauer did some terrible things in the pursuit of justice and freedom. But every time he did something wrong, the aftermath wasn’t a happy, go lucky experience. Bauer experienced a huge amount of loss and punishment throughout the series, ranging from the murder of his wife to the deaths of almost all his closest friends.
Passengers came so close to being a strong four star or even five star movie. But the portrayal of its “hero” and his suffering female companion is so unforgivable that it brings the entire film crashing down to the 2/3 star level.
But, if I was to put on my screenwriting hat, there are several ways that this could be fixed:
1) The Minor Rewrite
The film would fundamentally stay the same up until the point where Jim is unconscious and is dragged into the medical pod by Aurora. However, Aurora is unable to save him and he dies.
Aurora then spends the next few months and years alone, potting around an empty spaceship. Like Jim before her, she slowly starts to lose her mind and is eventually forced to make the same decision as Jim, and chooses to wake someone up so she doesn’t have to die alone.
This way Jim is punished for his transgressions, but the tragedy of the situation is made even more apparent as Aurora is forced to make the same decision that he did.
2) The Major Rewrite
Choosing to make the genre Sci-Fi/Drama with an action ending was a complete mistake. Rather the film could take a leaf from What Lies Beneath and have its male lead become the primary villain. The film could have remained more or less the same up until the point where Aurora discovers she was woken up by purpose.
The film then descends into a horror/thriller where Jim becomes more and more unhinged and dangerous. The film eventually turns into a sort of cat-and-mouse game where both Jim and Aurora have to kill each other to save themselves.
3) The Page One Rewrite
Personally, this is my preferred structure. I would have made Aurora the main character. We should have followed the entire film through her eyes. Imagine she wakes up. There’s no one around as she wanders the ship, going through the same emotions that Jim currently goes through. But as she explores she comes across several piles of mess, like empty containers, dirty clothes, etc.
Finally she meets the first person she’s seen in days/weeks. Jim approaches her. He’s got a full beard. He’s crying. She’s weary, but he seems so happy to see her. He tells her that his hibernation pod malfunctioned nearly 2 years ago. She feels sorry for him and the film continues with them developing a relationship.
The film would continue with her discovering that he woke her up by purpose and it essentially turns into the horror/thriller mentioned above.
The tag line is super misleading. To the point it’s pissed me off.
There is a reason they woke up
I’m sorry, but when that’s your tagline you kind of give the impression that the reason for waking up is purposeful. Waking up because a meteor accidentally damaged your hibernation pod is technically a reason. But it’s in no way a meaningful reason.
By the way, I’d also love to know how the conversation went when they hired Andy Garcia. 🙂
Casting Director: “Hi Andy. Great to meet you. Thanks for coming in!”
Andy Garcia: “No Problem.”
Casting Director: “We’ve got a great new sci-fi film coming up. Really big budget, stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, and we’re releasing it during Oscar Season.
Andy Garcia: “So you’re releasing it–”
Casting Director: “That’s right. Only 2 weeks after Star Wars.”
Andy Garcia: “Wow! That’s some confidence!”
Casting Director: “The film’s about these two people travelling through space and we’d love you to come on board as the ship’s captain.”
Andy Garcia: “I’d love to consider it. When do I get the script?”
Casting Director: “Errr… small thing. You don’t have any lines.”
Andy Garcia: “Oh……… OH! Is it because I’m playing a type of robot that doesn’t speak human language? You know, like in WALL-E?
Casting Director: “No… You’re playing a normal human. But we just need you to walk through a door”
Andy Garcia: “That’s it?”
Casting Director: “Well, you’ll be wearing a captain’s uniform and we need you to put on a confused expression. But… Yep. Just need you to walk through a door.
Andy Garcia: “……………………………..You know I was nominated for an Oscar right?”