Sci-fi movie Passengers is Sleeping Beauty set in space

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The Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence movie Passengers is a sci-fi adventure love story. In fact, it asks big questions about consent … and fairy tales.

What is Passengers about?

The spaceship Avalon is en route to a new planet, Homestead II. It’s transporting 5,000 colonists plus crew, all asleep in hibernation pods. They’re intent on starting a new life far from Earth. But 30 years into the journey, a meteor strike causes one hibernation pod to malfunction.

Passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is the only person awake on the entire ship. And he can’t put himself back sleep for the remaining 90-year trip. When the isolation becomes unbearable, he wakes fellow passenger, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). While he’s already fallen for her, his actions maroon her with him, with no chance of help from Earth.

Then, the spaceship malfunctions, pitching them both into a race for survival.

Obligatory warning: Passengers is a fun, if fairly shallow, sci-fi romance. The ending is sweet, and the leads are likeable. But, like anything, the story reveals much more about society and pop culture. This article gets into the film’s themes, theories and social relevance. It also contains spoilers.

Is Passengers a fairy tale?

In Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty, evil fairy Maleficent curses Princess Aurora to die before her 16th birthday. Her fairy godmothers intervene to lessen the damage. Rather than dying, Aurora will fall into a deep sleep – and she can be woken by true love.

Passengers mixes this fairy tale foundation with elements from Snow White.

Snow White is also cursed for her beauty by an evil old woman. She bites a poisoned apple and falls into a deathly sleep. She’s placed to rest in a glass coffin, where she stays until a passing prince falls in love with her looks. He kisses her, waking her from her slumber.

Passengers starts off with these classic fairy tale tropes, but gives them a modern twist:

  • Jim Preston spies Aurora asleep in her glass coffin (hibernation pod)
  • He falls in love with her, and wakes her up
  • Jim’s actions don’t end in ‘happy ever after’. By waking Aurora early, he imprisons her on the ship for 90 years.
  • Jim and Aurora fall in love. But when Aurora finds out what Jim has done, she’s furious.
  • The Avalon starts malfunctioning, putting all 5,000+ passengers at risk.
  • Jim dies trying to stop the ship from exploding. Aurora rescues him, places him in a medical pod – another kind of glass coffin – and brings him back to life … through true love.

Like these traditional fairy tales, Passengers begins with a man deciding the romantic fate of the woman he loves. But it ends with the princess becoming the action hero, and finally deciding her own fate.

A question of consent

It’s fitting that Passengers is loosely modelled on Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, because its big question is about consent.

Traditional fairy tales have troubling attitudes towards female consent. Of course, we’ve inherited these from times when women didn’t have rights. They were considered their father’s property until marriage, and then they belonged to their husbands. For a prince to kiss Snow White and Sleeping Beauty without consent wasn’t seen as problematic, but aspirational.

Passengers does a good job of inspecting what this looks like in modern times. Like a fairy tale prince, Jim Preston falls in love with the sleeping Aurora. He then convinces himself that it’s OK to violate her privacy and human rights. Aurora spells out why this wrong: “He took my life away … it’s murder.”

Later, Jim is willing to sacrifice himself to save the other 5,000 passengers onboard. This is a way of redeeming himself in Aurora’s eyes (and assuaging his guilt). By stepping up with truly heroic actions, he becomes a more worthwhile prince.

In this way, the film doesn’t stray too far from those original fairy tale tropes. Like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Aurora Lane overlooks the violation done to her because of love (or, arguably, because it’s the safer thing to do).

However, the film makes this more palatable. By turning Aurora into the prince figure, she gains power and becomes an equal worthy of the hero’s love (a common twist in the romance genre). At this point, Jim belatedly gives her back her choice. This time, when asked if she’d like to return to stasis, she chooses to live in the moment with him.

What’s the film’s message?

For Aurora, the message is to appreciate happiness right now, rather than pinning it on future events or achievements. She says they (and we) are passengers because we’re not the architects of our futures. Fate can take us to quite different ends. But it’s possible to still be happy with whatever you have at the time.

In 1999 sci-fi classic, The Matrix, Neo learns that most people are asleep. He gets to choose to wake up and live in the moment. On the Avalon, being asleep also stands for being blind to the present moment. When Aurora wakes up … she ‘wakes up’ to a new perspective.

Easter eggs and titbits

  1. The original Avalon is the legendary island of Arthurian folklore. When android bartender Arthur tells Jim that he’s never been stranded on an island, it’s only half true. They’re all stranded onboard the Avalon.
  2. Arthur’s only role in Passengers is to give Aurora a way of finding out Jim woke her on purpose.
  3. There are shades of Adam and Eve. Jim brings Aurora ‘to life’ without her say so. They live together as the only humans. When the rest of the ship awakens, they’ve transformed Avalon into a Garden of Eden.
  4. Laurence Fishburne plays Gus Mancuso in Passengers. He also plays Morpheus in The Matrix.
  5. For more space sagas involving a sleeping crew, see the unparalleled Ulysses 31.

Passengers (2016), directed by Morten Tyldum

Picture credit: Nathan Duck