Passengers: Waking Up from Suspended Animation Makes for a Delicious Plot

Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) try to make sense of this mess in Columbia Pictures’ Passengers
Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) try to make sense of this mess in Columbia Pictures’ Passengers, Photo: © 2016 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved / Jaimie Trueblood

A lot of the stories I write for Dan’s Papers are typed on a laptop on the Hampton Jitney on one of the trips it takes going back and forth from the Hamptons to the city. It’s generally a two-and-a-half hour trip. And that’s just about right for one writing session. Occasionally, when something is complicated or very long, I can’t quite get it done before we arrive at the destination. When I see that is about to happen, I hope the bus gets into traffic and slows down a bit so I can finish. But it doesn’t happen. It makes me grumpy to not get the story done.

The atmosphere on the bus is of library-silence quality. Reports are read, editing is done, newspapers and magazines are perused. On the luxury bus of Hampton Jitney, the Ambassador, there are hot towels handed out and earphones for the movie. Food and drink are served by an attendant. I generally accept the offerings but decline the earphones. The movie will take almost the whole time of the trip. I won’t get any work done.

But there are exceptions. Last week, it was the movie Passengers starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. I looked it up on Rotten Tomatoes after I heard what it would be. It’s sci-fi. The critics hated it. The moviegoers loved it. So I watched it. And that is what the rest of this article is going to be about.

The film opens with an enormous, quiet spaceship drifting majestically through space. The ship is so big that there is never a time the camera gives you a view of it in its entirety. It slides through the vacuum of space. A typed explanation appears on the screen. This is the spaceship Homestead II. It is owned by a big corporation and this is its 52nd voyage bringing settlers to this colony on the new world. It will take 120 years for Homestead II to reach the new planet. On board, asleep in pods in suspended animation, are 5,000 passengers. They will be awakened when they are four months from their destination. They will be needing re-orientation education.

We see some of the pods, maybe 300 of them in several rows in a great hall the size of the Superdome. It’s dark in there. But strips of white and pink neon glow and hum. It’s the life support. All is well.

The camera moves in on one particular pod. Lying still on his back, asleep inside, is the character Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt.) He’s about 35. He will be 35 when they arrive, because he is in suspended animation. A hologram of a pleasant looking young woman appears inside the pod, hovering in front of him.

“It’s time to wake up, Jim,” she says. “We are nearing our destination. This is a very exciting time.”

He stirs, the pod cover slides down, the hologram urges him to his feet and accompanies him down a corridor to his quarters. There he is told to shower, put on some new clothes, have a drink of a yummy shake that a machine is preparing, and then put away his things.

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers
Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers, Photo: © 2016 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“You are bound to feel a little shaky at this point,” the hologram says. “But when dressed please go to your assigned classroom, 32, just down the hall for your orientation.”

And so he goes. He enters the classroom. There’s a hologram of a different woman at the head of the class, but nobody else is there.

“Now everybody please have a seat,” this new hologram says. “And I will tell you about some of the virtues of this exciting new planet that is about to be your new home. How many of you have read up on this?”

Jim looks around. All around him are empty seats. Something is terribly wrong. He runs out of the room.

He runs down a hallway, shouting for anyone to answer, but there is no answer. He goes into one room after another—this place is like a giant cruise ship with every luxury imaginable. Nobody is in any of them. He finds a computer screen and pokes at it to ask questions. How long has it been since they left earth? Thirty years, two days, seventeen hours. How long until they reach the destination? Ninety years, seventeen days, twenty-one hours. He’s been awakened early. This is an enormous mistake.

As the movie moves along, Jim tries mightily to break down the steel firewalls separating the crew from the passengers, but fails. He grows a beard, is nasty to robots whose job it is to serve him. He finds a bar with what appears to be a bartender at it (played by Michael Sheen), who turns out to be a pleasant and empathetic cyborg.

“What will you have?” the bartender asks. He’s cleaning a wine glass.

Jim tells him and the bartender zips to get the bottle. Jim can now see he is stainless steel from the waist down, ending in wheels.

Eventually Jim finds a sleeping beauty among the passengers, a woman whose name is Aurora (played by Jennifer Lawrence). He sits by her for days, hoping she might wake up, but she doesn’t. He talks to the cyborg about how beautiful she is. He also has read her biography. She’s really great. In fact, he’s developed a crush on her.

Finally, and now it’s a year later, he can’t stand it anymore and figures out how to wake her. When she awakens, he lies to her. It just happened, like it happened to him.

The movie now turns into a love story. It goes from wary companionship to friendship, and well, to romance. But then she learns he woke her up. And she hates his guts and won’t have anything to do with him. “You’ve taken my life!” she screams at him from a balcony.

This goes on a while, until, suddenly, more things start going wrong with the ship. (His waking early was the first of them.) The electricity goes out, then comes back on. Gravity fails and then is restored. And this unlikely pair come to the conclusion that something is seriously wrong, that the mission will fail—unless the two of them make up and figure out the problem on their own and fix it.

For the rest of the movie, the two are running this way and that, putting out fires (sometimes literally, with fire extinguishers) and trying to find the source of the problem—and, of course, they do. In the process, just as Jim is willing to die to save Aurora from the overheating core computer and a complete meltdown, the two fall back in love.

“Come back to me, Jim,” Aurora shouts to Jim as he prepares to go outside the ship for a spacewalk to open a core computer door that is stubbornly refusing to open. “I can’t live without you.”

This plot is so delicious, I thought it worth telling you about.

I haven’t felt so drawn to a plot like this since 30 years ago, when I read a book called Garbage World, where a space ship from earth lands on some faraway planet, to be greeted by friendly humans who wear bits and pieces of strange clothing. They are taken to makeshift shacks where everything is filthy and dirty and they can’t figure it out until, halfway through, the sound of a siren is heard and huge bags full of garbage come screaming through the atmosphere to land amongst them, bringing both exciting new garbage from distant planets and danger to the citizenry (if the bags hit them). This is the dump planet for all the other planets. The people are garbage pickers. They run and hide. The new visitors have to either figure out how to put an end to this suffering or get the hell out of there.

I forget how it ends.

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