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Passengers interview: Writer Jon Spaihts talks about the ending, aliens, and modern cruise ships

by Brandon Russell | December 22, 2016December 22, 2016 12:30 pm PDT

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Releasing Passengers over the holidays is a ballsy move. People are traveling, occupied with family, and snuggling up to the fireplace. But the film, starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, isn’t like other holiday fare. Set among the vast backdrop of space, it tells of the murky moral dilemma one man faces knowing he could die alone.

Spoilers ahead

Aboard a spaceship headed for Homestead II on a 120-year journey, mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up from suspended animation 90 years too early. With no way to get help or go back to sleep, Preston confronts his new life of extreme isolation while the 5,000 other passengers on the ship remain asleep, headed toward an idilic paradise.

About a year after waking up, we find Jim consumed by his loneliness and at his last wit’s end. He finds hope when he crosses paths with a sleeping passenger named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), who he ultimately decides to wake up. It’s an incredibly selfish act, and a bleak theme not seen in other Hollywood love stories.

We spoke with Passengers writer Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) about Jim’s dilemma and how the ending evolved during the movie’s long development, which began all the way back in 2007. We also asked Spaihts about whether there was ever any temptation to introduce aliens into the script. The movie does, after all, take place in space.

“The great evolution has been in the culmination of both the crisis of the ship and the crisis of Jim and Aurora,” Spaihts said when asked about how the integrity of the ending changed over time. “The redemptive act Jim performs to save the ship is relatively new and the way he’s able to offer Aurora redemption is something we discovered during production of the film.”

Creating a film that presents audiences with questions of morality, isolation, and the value of life has been immensely gratifying for Spaihts, who says the movie was made faithfully by director Morten Tyldum.

“The aesthetics and the sensibilities from the script are present in the film; it’s very honorably treated and that’s a rare thing in such a big Hollywood film,” Spaihts said.

That vision, it turns out, never involved aliens or a mysterious supernatural threat. Big budget Hollywood films often fall back on familiar tropes as their big twist, but Passengers never uses them as a copout, which in turn allows the film to focus on Jim, what he has done to Aurora, and he how hides his guilt from her.

“When we first started talking to studios about Passengers that was the first question that came back at us,” Spaihts said. “What if there’s a criminal conspiracy, what if there are aliens, what if there’s a deadly robot? We stood our ground and said that’s not what this movie is about. This movie is about the lack of an antagonist and we didn’t want to tack on a shoot ’em up so the poster would look better.”

Although Jim isn’t your typical antagonist, he does make a selfish decision when he wakes Aurora up. Still, the movie manages to make him likable, against our better judgments.

“The most important part was for us to walk audiences through Jim’s experience, so that they would understand his suffering,” Spaiths said. “I think the “What would I do?” conversation is the conversation I wanted everyone to have coming out of the theater. If people come out of Passengers arguing about it then the movie succeeded.”

Indeed, it’s a difficult question to grapple with. When you’re confronted with such immense isolation, human contact is capable of bringing a person back from the brink of suicide, as it did for Jim. Unfortunately, Jim’s decision and how Aurora deals with it are overpowered by a more conventional third act, which sees the two rescue the ship from destruction.

Despite its faults, the movie has an authenticity that’s made stronger thanks to the movie’s science, which Spaiths said was important to get right.

“The technology and the science in Passengers is meant to be background, not foreground, but I believe audiences instinctively pick up cues from those fictional environments,” Spaihts said. “It reassures them and grounds them in the story. Getting the science right is important even when it’s not the focus of the story.”

Adding to Passengers’ authenticity is the ship’s incredible design, which Spaiths revealed was the brainchild of Guy Dyas, the film’s production designer.

“The ship I had in my mind was a much more conventional sci-fi spaceship, with black decks and artificial gravity,” Spaihts said. “I was inspired by a modern cruise ship design by the architect Norman Bel Geddes. But the rotating helix that we have in the film is the brainchild of Guy Dyas, who gave us one of the most striking spaceship exteriors I’ve ever seen.”

Combined, Jim’s decision, the backdrop of space, and the gorgeous scenery make for a compelling movie that raises some strong questions about morality and loneliness. If you could wake someone up early to keep you company, would you do it?

Passengers is out now in theaters everywhere.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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