Passengers – Is It Watney?

It’s funny how long-distance space travel seems like – if not a far off possibility – an inevitable necessity. Assuming, of course, we don’t eventually push our planet to the brink of destruction. Eco-Activist Sensibilities, Activate! Renewable energy! Nuclear power! Compost Toilets! Oh, to hell with all that – run away at light speed! (Or close enough)

With that in mind, I shouldn’t be surprised to find a sci-fi film about traversing space to colonise a new Earth. A new life that is a lifetime away – a problem. The passengers ‘sleep’ all the way there. Problem solved! Unless you’re an early riser.

Passengers. The trailer, a glut of visually stunning CGI debauchery, piqued my interest – I dragged Koiby to the cinema so we could watch it. A strange question passed between us after it finished: Was it Watney?

Let me explain. As of last summer, we have become quietly obsessed with Ridley Scott’s The Martian. I don’t know, somehow the hard sci-fi, gallows humour and shit farming really resonated with us. I bought the book, the blu-ray and the audiobook. Koiby bought the mobile game and even a Martian Smartwatch. Our Watney shrine continues to grow with reckless abandon. When we ask, ‘Is It Watney?’ we ask if it measures up to The Martian’s effect on us. Call it an in-joke turned obscure review.

A note before I start – this will cover spoilers. This isn’t a film recommendation. It’s a Watney discussion. Don’t want spoilers? Watch Passengers before you read any further. You have been warned.

The Story

Passengers literally started with a bang. A spaceship – the Avalon – is shown drifting through space. Its path leads into an asteroid belt, but some kind of force field deflects any that get too close. Until a big sod of an asteroid gets in the way. It disintegrates upon contact with the forcefield thing, but some of the remains break through and clatter across the ship. Error messages. Alarms. Our protagonist Jim Preston, played by Chris Pratt, wakes up. After some initial confusion about being literally the only human awake, Jim discovers that The Avalon is 30 years into its 120-year journey – he’s woken up 90 years too early. Jim is understandably distressed at the revelation.

It made for a pretty compelling story, watching Jim wrestle with the hopelessness of it all, being entirely alone with no chance of reaching his destination alive. He uses his engineering capabilities to learn the ins and outs of the hibernation pods, to try and get back to sleep – but it doesn’t work. No-one ever thought to give it any capability beyond maintaining that hibernation.

Like Watney, he’s screwed.


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I really loved the android barman Arthur, who seemed to be so friendly and warm I still don’t quite believe that he was as cold and unfeeling as Jim, at his worst, accused him of being. Given the nature of the barman character in many stories, the confidant, a supplier of comfort and inebriation. I’ve seen a lot of stories where bartenders become the recipient of countless life stories from their drunken customers. It stands to reason something similar would happen here. Arthur becomes a massive source of comfort to Jim and encourages him to enjoy the situation he’s stuck in. Which means, of course, he breaks into a premier suite, hits up all the arcades and restaurants available to him and ultimately goes on a massive bender.

It comes to a head when he goes on a spacewalk and observes the vast majesty of space. I found it hard to breathe, watching the drunk and unkempt Jim contemplate throwing himself out the airlock without a suit. It went on for long enough that I almost thought he’d do it. But he doesn’t, and staggers into the hibernation bay where he comes across Aurora Lane, played by Jennifer Lawrence. She’s beautiful, she’s perfect, he’s smitten – but she’s 90 years out of reach.

Except she isn’t. Jim knows his way around hibernation pods.

You can imagine what happens next, and all things considered, it was awesome watching him clean his life up while growing all the more obsessed with Aurora. It seemed human and natural and when he finally gave in and woke her up, I could relate (They named her well, no?). His actions were creepy and stalkerish, but they were understandable. Obviously, I knew it would hit the fan when she found out what really happened – as their relationship continued to grow that fact never left my mind. The eventual reveal was really killer – a misunderstanding on Arthur’s part. Never tell a robot ‘There are no secrets between us’. Real bad idea.

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The sad thing is when that plot thread is resolved and the critical issues with the ship return to the forefront, it all begins to fall apart. After such a breakneck ride, the ending was abysmal – the story skips ahead 88 years to when the crew wake up and find out what Jim and Aurora did to the ship. We don’t see any of their life together, we just hear the opening to Aurora’s book, a parting letter to the rest of the passengers. Kind of an anti-climax, really.

The Sci-Fi

We can’t discuss the Watney-like qualities of Passengers without looking at the Sci-Fi elements of the story. There’s plenty to look at – space travel, stasis pods, androids, fusion reactors – I’m spoilt for choice! What a shame it was bland in comparison!

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The thing you need to realise about The Martian is that it was hard sci-fi. It was believable, we understood to an extent how it worked, and nothing seemed too superfluous or fantastical – from the Oxygenator to the Water Reclaimer to the Hermes itself. Maybe it’s because the Sci-Fi elements were so fluidly woven into the narrative, I don’t know – but it works brilliantly.

In comparison, the elements of Sci-Fi in Passengers come across as a little soft. How does the meteor-proof (see: unsinkable) forcefield at the prow of the ship even work? Visually, it looks like the representation of a planet’s magnetic field. Whether that really is how it works, we never know – it’s just there to fail briefly and instigate the plot as a whole. Which involves, by the way, a piece of meteor/asteroid destroying the reactor control ship. As a result, the rest of the computer has to pick up the slack but can’t maintain the added workload, causing a cascade of failures that will lead to the eventual destruction of the ship. I found it really hard to believe that such a critical piece of hardware wouldn’t have backups. It seemed daft that the rest of control panel would even be programmed to pick up the slack – auxiliary power is a thing for a reason, damn it! (I guess the architects never thought they’d need it. Did anyone see an iceberg?)

It’s often said of good Sci-Fi that the sciencey bits are interwoven into the background – that they compliment the plot instead of driving it. The key point: if a story falls apart without the sciencey bits, it’s bad Sci-Fi. This is, pretty much, exactly what happened in Passengers. All of the sci-fi elements exist purely as a plot device, coming to our attention purely because they were needed to further the plot. Arthur seems so warm and human in his interactions despite being an android because Jim needs someone to talk to. The material around the bridge area is impossible to break into – what’s it made of that thwarts all of Jim’s efforts? Unobtanium, clearly. (Imagine if those bits needed maintenance. We’d be screwed! Oh, wait.) Until the captain wakes up and unlocks those parts of a ship as result, they’re firmly out of reach.

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Until the captain wakes up and unlocks those parts of a ship as result, they’re out of reach. Somehow the repeated failures remove him from stasis, but because his pod is ‘funky’ he is inflicted with every disease and disorder known to man and dies almost immediately. Not before he orders the estranged Jim and Aurora to make nice and fix the ship, though. Like the wise old man passing through. A brief and contrary perspective that somehow fixes everything. Another plot device.

I’m brought to another question – How did the stasis pods reduce the metabolism to a halt without killing the brain? I never found out, but they got woken up with gas and needles. The hibernation, it’s revealed, was brought into effect at a medical facility and the pods don’t have the capability to return you to sleep. What’s needed to put you back to sleep? Who cares, not important. How is it that despite being incapable of doing much more than maintaining hibernation can somehow infect a human with the fatal illness known as ‘everything’?

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At the end of the film, it’s revealed that the ‘AutoDoc’ machine on the ship has the ability to render a human into a state resembling hibernation, but there are only one of these things. Never mind the plentiful spare parts on the ship or the clever engineer who can apparently do everything, there’s no way to link a pod to the machine so that both of them can go back to sleep. After all, it would render their experiences meaningless. Right?

Is It Watney?

Passengers was a film that knew a lot more than it was letting on. The moments where it alluded to a larger story were brilliant – like the vast amount of scorch marks branding the bridge entrance. The sad thing was, I felt like it could have told so much more. Would it really have ruined the pacing to charge the film with a bit more concrete world-building? To show a bit more of the ending scene, or some kind of montage covering the rest of Jim and Aurora’s life would have given the film a much more fulfilling finish despite its shortcomings. As a result, the flaws become all the more obvious.

To quote Koiby: A good ride with a disappointing end, like a rollercoaster that’s one loop short.

It’s Not Watney.

 

 

 

 

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