Passengers: Purpose, Rape, and the Impossible

First of all, let me start by saying that I get in trouble a lot for “overthinking things,” movies included. When my wife and I went to see “Passengers” this weekend, it left me with some thoughts. First of all, if you want to read a review of the film to decide if you want to see it for yourself, click here to check it out on RottenTomatoes.com.

Overall, we enjoyed it. It was a love story with a fair amount of comedy in a science fiction setting. It was a pretty good date movie. However, it was not without its challenging moments. Be warned, what follows discusses the film’s plot, so there are fairly substantial spoilers ahead.

The trailers, at least as I remember them, paint a somewhat different story than what actually plays out in the movie. While the basic premise remains the same, namely that two people have woken up too early from hibernation on a 120-year space trip, the essential element is passed over in the trailers. The moral hinge of the story revolves around the fact that only one person’s hibernation pod malfunctions. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) spends over a year alone on the spaceship, with the other 5,000 plus occupants sound asleep. He is doomed to die alone before the ship ever reaches its destination and the others awake. What follows is a depressing montage of a man quickly tiring of the lonely luxury of the ship and slowly losing his will to live.

So he does the unthinkable and wakes up someone else: a woman named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). Before waking her up he reads up on her and her work. He falls in love with her from afar and sabotages her hibernation pod so he does not have to be alone. It is important to note that while Jim mulls over the moral implications of this for some time, he is forcing her without her consent to live out the rest of her days on a spaceship with someone she has never met.

Of course, Jim does not tell her any of this and the two inevitably grow close and then grow intimate. As the love story rolls along, you slowly begin to forget that this sexual relationship was based on a coercion, which may be the very definition of rape. The hard part is that we find ourselves sympathizing with the rapist. When Aurora inevitably discovers the deception due to a loose-lipped android bartender with no legs, the horror on her face reminds us what we have been witness to.

Whether something is or is not rape hinges on the question of consent, which may very well be the larger theme of the movie. Early on in their relationship, Jim and Aurora discuss their reasons for boarding a ship for a new planet, leaving behind their family and friends forever. Aurora chastises Jim for buying into the corporate advertising. It is, at the same time, ironic that Aurora is taking the journey to try to live up to her father’s stature as a writer. There is a subtle reminder that our lives are shaped by forces beyond our control: media, advertising, family history, our raising, and rapists.

In the earliest parts of the film, the various computer interfaces on the ship insist to Jim that what he claims is happening, that his pod malfunctioned, is impossible. Jim repeatedly asks, “Then how am I here?”

In the thinking of the modern and postmodern eras, consent has increasingly become the cornerstone of our ethics and values. This has led to many wonderful advances and some rough patches along the way. Consent thinking has birthed democracy and capitalism. It is gradually replacing purity and property concerns in sexual relations.

The terrifying reality that “Passengers” points out is that consent may very well be impossible. We insist upon it, but we may very well wind up sounding like the android bartender insisting that the pods cannot malfunction and that Jim’s presence is simply impossible. Jim was, in a way, raped by circumstances in the shape of the giant space rock that caused his pod to malfunction. Aurora was raped by Jim, or maybe even by the social nature of human beings coupled with male sexual urges in a dire situation. It is horrible.

In the end, as uncomfortable as all of that makes us, especially the part where the raping is being done by man to a woman, they come to accept their reality. Aurora is even given the option to return to hibernation but declines it. Such a gesture does not excuse Jim’s actions, and some might condemn Aurora for giving herself to her abuser after knowing what he did. Like any story, and reality, there it stands. What happened, happened. It is what it is. We are reminded that, in many ways, our freedom is an illusion and the universe  (and many of the people in it) does not give a damn about our consent. Yet we keep on living and making decisions.

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3 Comments

  1. Jeremy

    This movie really had me enthralled for the first hour or so, then lost me when it abandoned the moral commentary. It basically turned into an action flick and ignored everything that had taken place before it (to be fair, the trailer portrays it as being primarily an action movie… but it had the potential to be so much more!) I wish they would have explored the ramifications of Chris Pratt’s decision after Jennifer Lawrence finds out the truth. Instead, we are forced to sympathize with him (after all, they get one of the most likable actors out there to play the role – probably a mistake), and he gets the girl in the end with virtually no redemption. A bit disappointing.

    I like your take. Makes me wonder if perhaps I missed some things in the second half. I’ve thought about this before, and I think you’re right. Most everyone agrees that (sexual) rape is a bad thing (and it is), but if you think about it, all relationships frequently involve some sort of risk of a breech of consent. Just look at romantic relationships. Someone always has to make the first move, no matter how small or subtle, and it has to be without consent (at least non-verbally). I mean, how often do you see a man ask a woman whether he can kiss her before he does it! It’s kind of a faith thing. You look at the signs and take a leap of faith. Now this is not exactly the same thing as risking ruining someone’s life by opening their hypersleep pod, but it makes you wonder if the circumstances/signs are just right, how far a leap of faith you might be willing to take. It’s conceivable that he could have convinced himself that Jennifer Lawrence’s character might actually want to be woken up, because he thinks he’s one hell of a catch. I don’t think this is necessarily the case in the film, but perhaps someone could think that way – you never know.

  2. Warrior1

    Nope. This movie is rape culture. This movie is sexist and gives men the very message I read in the above comment. And it is disturbingly wrong. Rape is rape. Consent is consent. The moral dilemma in this film is in no way similar to a first kiss. With a first kiss there is body language and eye contact plus the chance to withdraw. In this movie there was only a man making a decision based upon his own dark and superficial infatuation with an unconscious woman. Shudder.

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