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Analysis: ‘Passengers’ is part space odyssey, part stalker flick

Digital Producer, Science
BY   December 22, 2016 at 5:20 PM EDT  | Updated: Dec 23, 2016 at 12:07 AM
Avalon, the fictional starship in Passengers. Photo by Columbia Pictures

Avalon, the fictional starship in Passengers. Photo by Columbia Pictures

Alert: This pieces discusses stalking and rape culture; it contains spoilers.

The best science fiction blends reality and imagination, so a viewer walks away contemplating the limits of human possibility. The worst takes leaps of faith that toss a viewer into an oblivion of head scratching.

Passengers, a space thriller directed by the Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum and starring Hollywood mainstays Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, begins in the first category before rocketing into the second. In the film, Avalon — a commercial starship — ferries more than 5,000 colonists on a voyage from Earth to a new home world called Homestead II. To survive the 120-year trip, the travelers are placed into induced hibernation, but an accident rouses Chris Pratt’s character — mechanical engineer Jim Preston — 90 years early.

The ensuing plot is run-of-the-mill, as culture critics have noted, which isn’t necessarily a strike against the film. Plenty of average but enjoyable storylines populate small and big screens. For instance, the trailer features a scene where Avalon’s artificial gravity fails while Aurora Lane (Lawrence) swims in a pool. The floating water encases her in a massive droplet and she struggles to escape…which makes little sense.

Swimming pool set in Passengers. Photo by Columbia Pictures

Swimming pool set in Passengers. Photo by Columbia Pictures

Swimming is possible on Earth thanks to water’s viscosity or its resistance to being moved. When you swim, you’re pushing against water molecules, which get momentarily stuck in the way and you move forward. (That’s also why astronauts can’t simply paddle through a space station — air’s viscosity is too low.) A blob of water floating in a space station should retain its viscosity, so go ahead and dive right inside.

Here’s the rub, and why this movie warrants a closer look.

Viewers will no doubt flock to Passengers this holiday season due to the star power of Pratt and Lawrence, but the movie calls on real mental health issues experienced by astronauts to introduce what is a clearcut case of stalking and sexual manipulation. We address this topic and other aspects of the psychology and science in Passengers below.

Passengers wake up in a realistic way

A hibernation bay in Passengers. Photo by Columbia Pictures

A hibernation bay in Passengers. Photo by Columbia Pictures

Ok, let’s start at the top, given Passengers orbits near the realm of believability with its portrayal of induced hibernation. All the Avalon voyagers are encased in air-filled pods, until a glitch causes Jim Preston’s vessel to pop open. A series of injections jumpstart his body, and he spends the next few days groggily returning to full function.

“The fact that they had him in this kind of sleep-deprived state and a little lethargic means someone did their homework,” said John Bradford, aerospace engineer and SpaceWorks Enterprises COO. SpaceWorks is an aeronautics firm that specializes in aerospace software development, satellite networks and hypersonic flight. The company also has a budding project on human hibernation — or induced torpor — which has been partially backed by two separate NASA grants since 2013.

Deep space missions will push the limits of human exploration by placing people in isolated environments for lengthy periods. NASA estimates a one-way, human trip to Mars might take anywhere from six to 13 months. Imagine trying to keep occupied on a yearlong family trip to Disney World. You might slowly lose your mind. Throw in radiation exposure in deep space, and hibernation inside a well-protected pod begins to sound like proposal worth exploring.

SpaceWorks’ concept for induced hibernation leans on therapeutic hypothermia, which is currently used in hospitals to treat cardiac arrest and traumatic brain injuries in adults. The practice lowers a body’s temperature, in a controlled fashion, by 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. This is far from Han Solo being frozen in carbonite or cryogenics. But the drop lowers a person’s metabolism and can prevent a patient’s organs from succumbing to a nasty cascade of biochemical deterioration. Most therapeutic hypothermia lasts on the order of hours to a few days, though studies in Germany and China have extended the windows to 10 days and 14 days, respectively, without long-term complications.

One SpaceWorks concept involves a group hibernation pod. An open pod for small crew could save on cargo weight relative to individual pods, while still maintaining the conditions for torpor. Photo by Mark Elwood/SpaceWorks Enterprises

One SpaceWorks concept involves a group hibernation pod. An open pod for small crew could save on cargo weight relative to individual pods, while still maintaining the conditions for torpor. Photo by Mark Elwood/SpaceWorks Enterprises

It’s unclear if a human body can handle longer bouts of torpor, so researchers at SpaceWorks and elsewhere are looking for clues among mammals like bears and arctic ground squirrels. Both can spend months in hibernation, though there are physical consequences. Bears keep their bones and muscles, which bests the current experience for space station residents. Yet bears maintain their regular temperature during hibernation, which requires a 30 percent loss of body mass, mostly fat deposits. As Arctic ground squirrels slumber, nerve connections in their brains shrivel and regrow. The adaptation might shift their brains into neutral, to conserve energy and cope with oxygen deprivation. Such neural makeovers could be a symptom of hibernating in cold temperatures and don’t seem to create neurological deficits.

This brings us back to why Jim or any space traveler might be groggy when they escape hibernation. Cold temperature hibernators, like ground squirrels and dwarf lemurs, don’t stay in torpor the whole time, but rather their bodies are aroused on a regular basis. The weird part: These animals may wake up to sleep.

Would Chris Pratt still look young after 30 years of hibernation? There’s no solid evidence that hibernation stalls aging in humans. But some studies in small mammals suggest torpor can extend lifespans. Photo by Columbia Pictures

Would Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence still look young after 30 years of hibernation? There’s no solid evidence that hibernation stalls aging in humans. But some studies in small mammals suggest torpor can extend lifespans. Photo by Columbia Pictures

“They don’t enter an REM sleep in hibernation. Your brain needs to enter REM sleep, because that’s where a lot of the restorative processes occur,” Bradford said. He continued a big subject of debate in torpor research is the value of sleep, and whether space travelers would need to cycle in and out of hibernation. Maybe waking up every few days means a human body would still lose bones and muscles?

So even though the technology for induced hibernation is far from reality at this point, Bradford said long bouts of hibernation could likely result in a few days of discomfort, grogginess and recovery for those aboard the Avalon.

A deserted island for sexual predators

After waking, Jim soon realizes that he can’t put himself back into hibernation and spends a year on his own, while gradually slipping into depression. The portrayal does echo a mental health trend seen among astronauts and cosmonauts that spend long durations on space stations. Some experience prolonged depression, social withdrawal, insomnia, fatigue and anxiety.

The movie takes a dark turn after this case of space malaise.

Jim seems doomed until he stumbles upon a pod containing writer Aurora Lane (Lawrence) -- then things get creepy. Photo by Columbia Pictures

Jim seems doomed until he stumbles upon a pod containing writer Aurora Lane (Lawrence) — then things get creepy. Photo by Columbia Pictures

Jim seems doomed until he stumbles upon a pod containing writer Aurora Lane. She becomes his sleeping beauty, meaning he spends months reading her books and watching profile videos shot back when she was journalist in her hometown of New York City. Naturally, he decides to use his mechanic skills to break her pod, so he can woo her. Jim and Aurora proceed to fall in love — all without her knowing the truth about why she woke up.

If this scenario sounds like stalking, that’s because it is stalking, based on accepted definitions. Jim’s behavior fits the profile of “intimacy-seeker stalking,” as described by psychologist Robert T. Muller in Psychology Today:

The intimacy seeker identifies a person, often a complete stranger, as their true love and begins to behave as if they are in a relationship with that person. Many intimacy seeking stalkers carry the delusion that their love is reciprocated. In 2009, country star Shania Twain had a stalker who fit this profile and received numerous love letters from him. He even attended Twain’s grandmother’s funeral without an invitation. The focus of management of intimacy seekers is on the underlying mental disorder coupled with efforts to overcome the social isolation and the lack of social competence that sustains it.

TV and movies are hardly strangers to rape culture, and popular science fiction is no exception. HBO’s Game of Thrones has performed dozens of rapes. Blade Runner — one of the most regarded sci-fi flicks of all time — features a rape scene between the two main characters.

When asked about Jim’s creepy nature, director Tyldum told The Film Stage:

I think you identify with Jim because of Chris’ performance. When you have characters who make questionable moral choices you need to identify with them. I think I would’ve done what Jim does and I think most people would. It’s interesting to be part of that journey. As soon as you understand him it doesn’t become creepy. I still want people to feel discomfort. I want people to talk when they leave the movie.

There are many examples where sexual assault in cinema expose the harsh realities of rape culture. But some critics argue that Passenger’s romantic storyline promotes and normalizes this destructive behavior. Entertainment writer Kristy Puchko explains for CBR:

It’s not that I have no sympathy for Jim’s dilemma and pain. But the moment he breaks Aurora from her hibernation, the film crosses a line it refuses to fully acknowledge, and so the romance is not fun, but FUBAR. This is not the premise of a love story: Boy sees girl. Boy becomes obsessed with girl from afar, decides he loves her, decides they are made for each other, she just doesn’t know it yet. Guy rips the girl out of her life, abducts her to live with him in a bunker she can’t escape.

This is cyberstalking, and then kidnapping. “Passengers” abruptly becomes a horror movie, but hopes you’ll be so caught up in the beauty of its sci-fi visuals and gorgeous stars — who repeatedly engage in make-out sessions and off-camera sex — to notice.

When Aurora does find out — after months of having sex with the man she has no idea abducted her — the heartbroken heroine tries to avoid Jim. This shouldn’t be difficult on a spaceship designed for 5,000 people to live for the final four months of the journey. But Jim won’t let her go; he values his need to explain himself over her wish for some space. He sneaks up on her while she’s eating. When she flees, he uses the ship’s announcement system to broadcast his apology as she’s jogging. She’s literally running from him, but can’t escape!

After a set of mishaps where Jim saves Aurora and then Aurora does the same, the couple reunites and opts to live together — even though Jim figures out a way to put Aurora back into hibernation. To recap, she picks to live the rest of her days with a cyberstalker and manipulator rather than be one of 5,000 people in the whole history of humanity to visit a new planet.

Some may view Aurora’s choice as an act of forgiveness, while others will brand the finale as a case of Stockholm Syndrome — where a captive feels sympathetic for their captor — but with interstellar proportions. Many survivors of domestic and emotional abuse rationalize their experiences. A 2015 report by Stanford social scientist Robb Willer found those who think of themselves as powerless tend to accept the status quo and agree to the wills of the powerful.

Passengers opened everywhere in the U.S. on December 21.

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