Monday, July 3, 2017

MOVIES: "Passengers" ~ Be the Judge

Note: This post basically spoils absolutely everything about the 2016 film Passengers. If you are not interested in being spoiled, please give this one a miss until you've seen it.

Initially, I was excited about Passengers. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence together in a sci-fi sounded like the best kind of cinematic mullet -- heartfelt acting in the front, party in the back. The trailer represented it as a strange sort of space romance, which, you know. I can get down with romance. Hell, I co-write paranormal romance.

Then the reviews started rolling out... and they weren't pretty. All I knew was that Pratt's character did something really awful to Lawrence's character, but then he became a hero and got the girl and the happy ending anyway, and because of that don't see this movie because it is Part Of The Problem.

Then I was asked would I like to see it.

Honestly, I trust my own eyes over someone else's, so I watched it. And, well... a few points.

One, the reviews were correct that Jim made a decision that helped him but effectively potentially would destroy Aurora's life. Two, the reviews were correct that in the end Jim got the girl and the happy ending. I mean, that's inescapable. That's literally what happens onscreen.

But there was a fair bit that got missed out.

Now, up front, I am not here to tell anyone bothered by the outcome of the film that they shouldn't be -- in large part because I still find it hinky, too. This was a very very grey movie. What I am encouraging, though, is a watch in a different mindset. For a change, I really am invoking Death of the Author (I tend to only invoke Unintentional Subconscious Symbolism of the Author); I don't encourage you to watch this as a romance or a sci-fi flick, but rather as a case being set before you. We're here to judge Jim: whether his choice was understandable or not, whether the fact that it ultimately saved more than 5,000 people absolves him or not, and whether or not he was truly "rewarded."

Point the First: Jim hecked up and the movie knows it.

The first thing I noticed as I watched was that Jim tried the "just deal with it" option for over a year. We see him consider suicide at one point (quite understandably, I'd say, and I don't often say that even in a fictional sense). We see him attempting to fill the human contact gap via Michael Sheen's Arthur, potentially named to maintain the Arthurian references of Avalon but also giving off a weirdly Hitchhiker's Guide vibe at times. He doesn't realise he's alone, wait a day, then crack open another pod.

The second thing I noticed was that they play up the guilt and self-doubt, even when he's already woken up Aurora and the lie is in action. When she asks "Why did you do it?" early on, Jim looks like he's about to drop through the floor until he hears what she's really asking. In fact, the revelation doesn't even hit until he seems to have decided he's "past it" (either actively or passively -- the movie doesn't dictate).

And the third thing? The movie makes it a point to depict Jim as predatory, via music and camera angles, when the time is right. When Aurora attacks him physically out of anger, he doesn't retaliate, nor does the movie's stylistic handling do anything to cast her as a villain. Even Jim's apology over the ship's loudspeakers is seen as invasive and inescapable, regardless of how heartfelt it may be.

Plus, dude. If Laurence Fishburne makes a surprise cameo in your movie just to say "Damn," you done bad.

Point the Second: An action can be both wrong and understandable.

This is a real-world truth that can get easily lost in real-world debates: the fact that the same action can be both understandable and morally wrong, and understanding one does not impede your understanding of the other.

Before we go any further, let me explain what I mean by "understandable." Because there's a vast chasm of difference between understanding something sympathetically and understanding how a certain set of variables can lead to a certain conclusions. For example, I can look at a person's upbringing and "understand" how they would come to be the person they are with the beliefs they have, while still not "understanding" why a human being would be cruel to another human being. The former is a matter of awareness of the world around me, while the latter is a call for sympathy where sympathy is not needed.

Perhaps it is better to say an action can be both wrong and comprehensible -- you can trace a scenario in which a person might find themselves on a road to doing a certain thing where, without those influences, they would not. But having something be comprehensible isn't necessarily a cause for sympathy.

In simpler terms, "I get why he did it, but it's still not okay."

Jim is a sympathetic character. We see that he tried. We see that he fought temptation. We see that he was immediately unhappy with his choice. We see that he suffered for it (not nearly as much as Aurora, but we do see that he was not unaware that he had taken away her freedom). Does that self-awareness purge Jim of any amount of his guilt? That's up to the individual viewer.

Point the Third: A bad action can lead to good consequences?

So, there's also the undeniable point that if Jim hadn't woken up Aurora, they would have been shorthanded when everything went to shit and 5,235 other people would have died. This was absolutely not on his mind when he sabotaged her pod, of course. He was on his mind. But the fact remains, in the context of the movie, several thousand other people would have died had it not been for Jim's indiscretion.

Here's a messy one for you, then: did the salvation of a ship full of people effectively cancel out Jim's sin and buy Aurora's freedom from her?

I'm not even going to pretend I can answer that, because now we're getting into the exact sort of areas that kept me from joining debate club or going into politics. The areas where I look and go, "Well, I'm glad it's not my job to pass judgment on this." Because yes, had Jim not been extremely selfish, the ship would have gone up in a ball of flame, and everyone with it -- including Aurora. It can be argued that, in addition to saving the Homesteaders, he also saved Aurora... not giving her the experience she wanted, but at least giving her a life she might otherwise have lost.

But if it wasn't the intent, does it still "count"? By the numbers, Jim and Aurora are heroes. By the numbers, Jim saved Aurora's life. But by intent alone, Jim robbed Aurora of her dream and her life. So the question is -- which is more important?

Point the Fourth: ... okay, they tried to make it not matter.

Admittedly, in addition to all the stuff they did extremely well, they also put in a bunch of failsafes so that technically you couldn't blame Jim too hard. Aurora is already willing enough to leave everything she knows behind, taking off to a Homestead planet and returning centuries in the future. She is dream-driven, not people-driven. And her brief moments of viewing her friends' good-byes to her, combined with the film's mechanics, drive home that the "I'll never see my friends again" ship has long since sailed.

Aurora is motivated by adventure, experience, and having something to write about. And by God, she gets that in spades. For what it's worth, Jim had time to read. He didn't choose an essential Homesteader, someone there with their family, someone whose removal would potentially create ripples. Whether that's kind or creepy is really more up to the viewers.

Final Point: There's a lot we don't see.

We may see what appears to be the "resolution" of the rift between Jim and Aurora: them working together to save the Avalon, Jim going through literal hellfire and death and resurrection, and Aurora turning down Jim's offer of going back into stasis when he finds a way to make it work. We see her say she can't live without him, and we see them apparently happy. All things considered, it really does look like a guy did some bad things, underwent some hellish penance, and then got the girl after all.

That said. We don't see everything. We don't see all the decades they spent together on the ship, and even the end result they leave behind is a simple blip. (Were there children? Did they choose to invest in some Platinum-Level contraceptives to make sure they didn't potentially force any kids into isolation once they died?) But as a human being who genuinely loves some people who did some bad stuff (and who has done some bad stuff but is still loved), I doubt such a situation would be that easy.

In a real Passengers scenario, they could have fallen in love without invoking Stockholm Syndrome, had it be real, been happy even. But essentially alone in space with that elephant in the room, there would be nights when Aurora hurt, or when Jim simply felt too guilty to look at her. That's humanity.

The fact that the film opted to depict it as happily-ever-after notwithstanding.

One of the things I was most puzzle by in the movie was the Unexpected Andy Garcia at the end -- especially considering he received actual prominent billing and not just a cameo mention. He had no lines, and did little else besides look around in wonder at his surprisingly green ship.

As it turns out, the story of Jim and Aurora was originally meant to be read after the fact by the ship's captain. The scene was cut to make for a trimmer story -- but I feel perhaps its inclusion could have made the purpose I discuss a little clearer.

Is there any way to "fix" that Jim gets the girl after screwing up her life? We could view it through the lens of a redemption story, but only if we view Aurora as his prize for good behaviour. Which. Nah. It's difficult to say that I really did enjoy this movie in spite of that, but that's largely because I watched the whole thing as a study in guilt and repentance. The idea that being sorry doesn't fix what you did. The idea that being conflicted about having done something doesn't mean you didn't do it.

I can completely understand why people would be turned off to this. Had it not had a pair of actors I like, and had I not watched it with someone to whom I could turn and constantly report on just how sketchy it was, I likely would not have liked it.

Can I cast judgment on what Jim did? Can I safely say that in situation I would have nobly awaited death alone and harmed no one else? No, I would've jumped out the airlock after a week. True story. I'm not even gonna pretend.

What I will say, though, is people's insistence that it depicts a Bad Thing and thus Don't Go See It is not necessarily helpful advice. The movie has good performances and awesome effects. And as a mental exercise, it's valuable. You may walk away thinking Jim should have just been a solo castaway 'til the Avalon blew up. You could, like me, theorize about what would've happened if he'd just kicked the beer dispenser a few times and woken up a few dozen people and partied into oblivion instead.

But even if you walk away disagreeing with it all or hating the ending or never comprehending any choices made, seeing it and thinking critically about bad choices made by average people is an exercise a lot of us could use.
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