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December 21, 2016

There’s an interesting overlap in two concepts that each inspire no end of argument on the internet: “spoilers”, and “triggers”.

People talk about spoilers as if they’re the greatest threat to enjoying our modern stories, and anyone writing about movies or television faces opprobrium for not at least making a show of issuing “spoiler warnings” before discussing plot points that might not be apparent at the outset of a story. I’d put it to spoiler-phobes that any story which can truly be “spoiled” by revealing a plot detail couldn’t have been that great to begin with. That said, I admit that something may be lost along with an element of surprise, so I’m happy to issue warnings and let people make their own choices.

Triggers seem to have much less social support, though the concept is so familiar that it forms the basis of some very common modern storytelling tropes. People who have experienced trauma can find certain stimuli or themes highly distressing or unpleasant. More generally, people can recognize that they find certain situations upsetting, and they request early “trigger warnings” of some of the more common of these sorts of situations so they can prepare themselves before engaging with certain material.

I bring this up because of a curious situation; a significant plot point in Morten Tyldum’s Passengers does fall under a certain umbrella of possibly-distressing subject matter, but Columbia Pictures’ marketing department seems to be playing this aspect down. It’s not a reveal that comes as any surprise within the story, but in practice it’s being treated as if it were a spoiler. And it’s also the point on which the vast majority of the critical conversation has been turning, somewhat unfairly in my view, and so I can’t simply avoid talking about it entirely.

The basic story, as the trailers indicate, finds two people stranded on an interstellar ship, traveling 120 (Earth) years to set up a colony on a new planet. The problem is that Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) have woken up from suspended animation about 90 years too soon. With all the amenities to themselves, they face the prospect of living out their entire lives with the closest to other human company being the android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen). Worse, one system after another is failing, which might cut their long, lonely lives very short.

The big catch that’s causing all the consternation — and here’s your warning to stop reading if you’re following the marketing and treating it as a spoiler — is that Jim woke before Aurora, and he’s the one who woke her up, condemning her to die on the voyage along with him. It’s an awful thing for him to have done, no matter how desperately lonely he was, and you don’t have to squint very hard to see it as a form of murder. There’s a very creepy and stalkerish overtone, which I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to avoid, and I’m not surprised people would be upset about a story that sets a stalker-and-kinda-murderer up as a hero.

Except for one thing: the movie is fully aware that this is a huge problem. It would be one thing if this were something like the classic example of Say Anything — or a lot of other rom-coms, for that matter — ignorantly casting the stalkerish behavior of its male lead as romantic. But Passengers puts that awareness right in the text. Jim knows that to wake Aurora is harming her, and knows that his behavior isn’t healthy. At every turn, when the fact of his actions comes up, the movie condemns him for it. And when a later system failure revives an actual crew member (Laurence Fishburne), he draws a pointed analogy: a drowning man will pull someone else down with him.

Which is not to say that it’s “right” for a drowning man to harm someone else, or that he’s a murderer for it, either. As repulsive as it is for the black-and-white world of social media outrage, morality is complicated and messy in these niche cases. As canned as the sci-fi adventure is that plays out in the third act, Jon Spaihts’ script actually attempts to strike a pose anyone would find difficult: to say, “I cannot countenance what you have done, but I can understand why you did it.”

It’s fair to say that wrestling with this uncomfortable position forms the basis of what Passengers is trying to get at but it finds its actual point one layer further in. Having established that waking Aurora was unfair and harmful to her, it puts her in a position where this has already happened, and asks her what happens next. Far from the “neat lessons about the nature of happiness and a life well lived” that a shallow reading of her closing monologue might suggest, she is trapped just as desperately as Jim’s at the start of the movie.

To forgive an injury like the one Aurora suffers is as impossible as it is for Jim to live out his life in the absence of human contact. Once she finds out, she too is drowning. Drowning in her pain and loss, and ready to go under and take the entire ship down with her in her grief. To move on with one’s life is no simple feat, summed up in a neat aphorism, but a daily struggle to acknowledge the pain and yet not be consumed by it. To focus on making the best of where you are and what you have now, rather than where you wish you were and what you wish you had, is easy to say, but recovery from injury and trauma is the difficult job of putting it into practice.

Forgiveness is all too often reduced to mere words, the same way regret is reduced to a glib “I’m sorry”, but its true expression is every bit as difficult. To forgive is impossible. It’s also essential.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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