3 Lessons Writers Can Learn From Passengers' Mistakes
I was really excited about Passengers when I first saw a trailer for it. Here was a new original big budget science fiction film. Those are few and far between these days, as one of the below videos points out. I'm a big sci-fi lover, so of course, I was all over that. The sets and visuals looked great and the two movie stars have charm coming out of their ears. What's not to like?
Then I started hearing rumblings of bad reviews. Finally, a friend's Facebook post peaked my curiosity to such a degree that I read the review she shared before seeing Passengers (something I rarely do). I had hoped to hire a babysitter and take my wife out to see the movie. That's a good bit of money to invest in an evening out only to have the main event of the night be a dud movie. I was glad I read the review first!
Eventually, I did get around to seeing Passengers. I am a science fiction and space travel lover and writer. As such, I like to stay informed when it comes to such movies. I also like to give things a shot for myself to see what I think (which is why I watched Ghost in the Shell and blogged about it). In this case, I didn't want to see Passengers in theaters and pay all that money to take my wife to a movie we'd end up rolling our eyes at. Having seen the film, I can honestly say that the visuals are wonderful, the sets are breathtaking, and the central concept is genuinely compelling. It's more-or-less entertaining. But ultimately, the movie just doesn't really work. Here are three reasons why it doesn't work and what writers can learn from the mistakes of Passengers.
Fair warning, what follows is one spoiler after another!
1. Audiences want better, less passive, female characters.
At the heart of Passengers is a profound ethical conundrum. The main character finds himself all alone on a ship that is only part way through it's interstellar journey to a planet that humanity is colonizing. He was supposed to be in suspended animation for the 120-year trip. But something goes wrong and he awakes far too soon with no prospect of going back to into suspended animation. Seeing as the ship is on autopilot and still 90 years from its destination, he's bound to get lonely. Faced with a life of solitude, he makes the difficult choice to wake another passenger, a woman with whom he's managed to "fall in love" (though, let's be honest, it's really just infatuation).
Yay, problem solved, right? He's not alone anymore. Except, he's sentenced this woman to a life on a spaceship instead of life on the new planet (or back on Earth, as we learn that she was going to head back home eventually). He doesn't tell her what he's done, of course.
Predictably, she finds out. They fight. But then the movie tries to distract us with other explosive issues on the ship and our lovers at odds have to work together to save the ship and the other 5,000 dormant passengers.
As the video below points out, the film sticks to a rather standard romantic structure. This ultimately undermines the crucial ethical question of the film. Jennifer Lawrence's character accuses Chris Pratt's character of murdering her. And yet she manages to forgive him in the end and they fall back in love and live together on the ship, just the two of them (and the bartending robot).
This approach has some unintended (I assume) side effects. First of all, it implies that if you're good looking and charming like Pratt, you can essentially kidnap a woman and get her to be okay with it eventually. Would audiences respond as well had the lead male been played by 60-year-old Steve Buscemi next to 26-year-old Lawrence? Let's be honest. No.
But the real issue is that regardless of age and good looks, what Pratt's character does is morally wrong. He steals the future plans and dreams and life experiences of a woman he has never actually met (he's only read her books), in order to alleviate his own loneliness. We do see him agonize over this choice, and it's clear that we're supposed to feel that this isn't something he decides flippantly. But whether he agonized over the choice or not doesn't change the inherent impropriety of the choice he made.
Meanwhile, Lawrence's character is far too passive throughout the story. She finds out the truth when it's convenient to the plot. She's understandably enraged, but it plays rather flat because the movie has already spent so much time making sure we feel a connection to Pratt's character's plight and not hers. Finally, she changes her mind about her captor when it's convenient to the plot, which sort of romanticizes Stockholm Syndrome (another relevant conversation with Beauty & the Beast out now).
What's more, Passengers definitely falls prey to the old notion that cinema, far too often, can be summed up as "men staring at women." As film critic Kristy Puchko pointed out in her review of the film (the one that convinced me not to shell out anything to see it in theaters), Lawrence's character "is exactly the kind of bullshit female character that critics have been begging screenwriters to retire for years. She’s not a person; she’s a plot device and an achingly obvious male fantasy."
Puchko goes on to say:
Aurora is glamorous, and loves to be decked out in chic black-and-white business-casual wear when she’s not clad in a futuristic bikini that offers plenty of options for the camera to leer. (Pratt by contrast, is never ogled. Instead, his nudity is presented as a joke.) She’s ever-ready for sex, doesn’t own sweatpants, and is smart and funny, but not so smart or so funny that Jim feels threatened by her. When it comes to fixing stuff, she’s so clueless her only job is holding the flashlight. Even her rage over Jim’s betrayal feels part of his fantasy. His guilt demands to be assuaged, so she has to be angry at him, but not for too long. After all, they still have space banging to do.
Ah, the space banging! That brings up one last important idea in this first point. I just don't remotely believe their relationship would have lasted. Come on! Two people with such a dark start to their relationship all alone on that spacecraft for decades just manage live happily ever after? Unless the bartender robot found a means to install some couple's counseling software into himself (and even then), I don't find it remotely plausible their relationship would have lasted. And maybe it didn't? Did you see any of their offspring running around at the end of the film? Me neither.
So what does this mean for writers? One major lesson here to screenwriters--all writers, really--is that we we can do better when creating female characters. Giving all characters in our stories the benefit of being complex and multifaceted people makes them more compelling, relatable, and enjoyable. In this case, they had the wrong lead character. Lawrence's character would have made a far more compelling lead character for Passengers. And it wouldn't have taken much to make Lawrence's character far more complex and a more active lead, as the next point will show.
2. The plot structure of Passengers destined it to mediocrity.
I was just sent the following very astute video essay this week. I think it nails some of the core writing problems with the plot and structure of Passengers. Again, the concept and central ethical dilemma of the film are incredibly compelling and should have made for a great movie. It's not that we can't tell a story about a stranded character that makes an exceptionally morally dubious choice and pose the question, "what would you do?" But, the real issue is that the way Passengers is structured completely strips the movie of any power to pose such a question. Instead, we're supposed to walk out of the theater feeling happy the two lovers finally worked their shit out and lived happily ever after.
Frankly, that story is flat and boring to me. The diametrically opposed characters who fall in love plot has been done to death, and as I've noted above, in this particular case it's just not believable that their relationship would last. As this clever and thoughtful analysis by Nerdwriter below points out, the very structure of Passengers set it up for failure. In fact, the following video offers up an experiment in changing the structure of the plot that also changes both characters, solving some of the issues I've spelled out above. When watching this video for the first time, I had chills and kept saying out loud, "I would have loved this movie!"
Okay, enough. Just watch this!
Had Passengers made Lawrence the main character and let the plot unfold from her perspective, I would have found it a far more compelling film. I think Nerdwriter is correct to point out that the structure of Passengers relegates the audience to mere passive observation. There's no intrigue or suspense. But starting the film at the point where Lawrence wakes up would have been the right choice. Why?
Lisa Cron (someone I quote often) argues in her book, Wired for Story, that the most important thing any story can do is to constantly get the audience to keep asking, "what happens next?" That makes the audience active participants in the story, working to decipher clues and interpret interactions and subtext to try to find out what's going on. I love the following observation Cron makes of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, a book that is so dreadfully written that by virtually any literary analysis it amounts to nothing more than a pile of a long-dried fecal matter:
So why is The Da Vinci Code one of the best-selling novels of all time? Because, from the very first page, readers are dying to know what happens next. And that's what matters most. A story must have the ability to engender a sense of urgency from the first sentence. Everything else--fabulous characters, great dialogue, vivid imagery, luscious language--is gravy. (Cron, pg 21)
Say what you will about Dan Brown's writing style (or lack thereof), but the man knows how to get us to ask "what happens next." This sense of urgency is born out of mystery. But there is no mystery in Passengers. We know what choice Pratt's character will make in the first 30 minutes of the film (we saw the trailers). We know he's not going to tell her the truth. We know she's going to find out and be angry at him. In fact, the screenplay telegraphs this particularly important punch (the bartender revealing the truth to Lawrence) so clearly, it's kind of pathetic.
The lesson for writers here is that we must infuse our stories with a natural sense of mystery and invite our audience into the experience of the story as it unfolds. If we write more compelling and engaged characters with inherent complexities, that can go a long way in getting our audience to constantly long to know what will happen next. Get whatever you're writing in front of people who will give you honest feedback. It will go a long way in this area.
Our stories can be complex and even morally ambiguous. But if we do not invite the audience to be active participants in the story, wondering at the mystery of it, and asking themselves what they would do in the same situation, then we're not likely to make anything particularly lasting or worthwhile. Carefully think about the structure of your story. Is it the best way for your audience to experience this story?
3. Audiences want smarter characters/plots and more accurate science.
While it might be true that many people recently have fallen prey to the fake news phenomena, the truth is there are an increasing amount of people who are thoughtful skeptics. We live in a post-Mythbusters world. Especially when it comes to science and logic in movies, there are plenty of people (not just academics) who can sniff "movie magic bullshit" from a mile away. Just look at the video College Humor put out recently speculating about how things would likely play out if Furious 7 had remotely realistic stunts that abide by the laws of, you know, that one thing ... uh ... physics.
Passengers is plagued with scientific inaccuracies, convenient events that work for the plot but feel wholly unbelievable, and characters making choices only characters in movies would make (i.e. illogical choices). The following video from one of my favorite YouTube Channels, Science vs. Cinema, sums it up so well, I'll just shut up and let you watch it.
Passengers works hard to allude to far better films like The Shining and Solaris. I'm all for that. But this movie has so little to offer that it just can't help but live in the shadow of these far better films it references. The space walk scene clearly draws from Pixar's Wall-E. In fact, the same composer offers up a nearly identical moment for the score. But the scene in Passengers, plagued by its lousy context, is far less majestic and instead just made me want to go re-watch Wall-E.
The lesson for writers in this area is to respect your audience. Present us with something fresh and characters who make logical choices. Not that that they will always behave logically, but give us clear motivation for why they might make illogical choices (and not just that it's convenient to the plot at that moment). Push yourself to come up with more believable obstacles for your characters to overcome so that they can make choices that are all the more relatable and compelling.
When it comes to science fiction in particular, do some goddamn research! There's hardly any excuse these days. Many answers to science questions are only a Google or YouTube search away. A bit of research and some creative thinking can lead to all kinds of exciting new real challenges and ethical dilemmas for your characters to face.
Aim high. Your audience will appreciate it.
My quest as a storyteller is to examine life through stories (the ones I experience and the ones I write). So when I see the missed opportunities in Passengers, I can't help but think about what could and should have been done to make this a more lasting, meaningful, and worthwhile story. While plenty of people I've interacted with have expressed that they liked Passengers, the film does not live up to the reported reputation of being of the best scripts that have been floating around Hollywood for a while. Maybe it was. Maybe the studio demanded a romantic structure and revisions that ultimately made it the lack-luster Stockholm Syndrome endorsing mediocre film it is. I'm not sure.
In any case, it's too bad. Those sets are beautiful, the cast is good, the shooting is great, the VFX are spot on. And while it can be easy to be entertained by all of those things (for they are genuinely entertaining in their own right), I long for more from such stories.
The upside is that I'm also learning from their mistakes.