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parts of it were very good

This afternoon C and I went to our local movie theater. The previews I had seen of Passengers looked interesting, and I figured it was relatively likely to have a short run, so we saw that. And I have to say it was a really well made science fiction film, not flawless, but one of the best I've seen in a long time—up until roughly the last half hour, where it fell repeatedly into some all too common Hollywood vices.

Actually, the first bad sign came earlier than that, roughly midway through: An instance of "the black guy dies." That's such a cliché it has its own TV Tropes page; you'd think the scriptwriters could have avoided it.

But the real problem came at the end, during the crisis that the previous scenes had led up to, slowly and cleverly. Not once, not twice, but three times, the logical conclusion of the plot calls for an unhappy outcome; and all three unhappy outcomes are avoided, in implausible way. Really, if the story you're setting up is "The Cold Equations," that's the story you should tell, and that was the story I was ready to be moved and impressed by, with the protagonist being one of Kipling's Sons of Martha. Instead the film not just backed off, but repeatedly did a 180° reverse—a sentimental choice, in the sense of James Joyce's saying, "The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for the thing done."

And it's really too bad, because until then, this was shaping up to be a classic of science fiction. It had really impressive visuals of a journey between the stars and of the technology of a starship. It had a primary conflict of Man versus Nature, as the ship's systems began failing; and some of the failures were impressively visualized, particularly the pool of water in zero gee. The secondary conflicts of Man versus Man and Man versus Self derived logically from this and developed equally inexorably, without being rushed. There were some really suspenseful scenes of physical danger, but no villain at all.

I'm not sure I can bring myself to watch this again; likely I'll never buy it. But there's enough good in it so that I feel it was worth watching. I just wish the filmmakers had had the courage to make it a tragedy.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 26th, 2016 06:38 am (UTC)
if the story you're setting up is "The Cold Equations," that's the story you should tell

*shivers* Ooooh, that story is chilling. Selfishly, I'm glad the movie has a happier ending, even if it's implausible. I'm looking forward to it.
Jan. 14th, 2017 04:21 am (UTC)
I felt like the movie didn't really understand the science part at all. It was looking at the emotional question -- given the man has done an unforgivable thing, should the woman forgive him? So it twisted itself into making the woman also want an unforgivable thing -- let everyone die but don't leave me alone. So now they can live happily ever after together as morally flawed human beings.

But that meant ignoring all the science, from big to small. Why can't you swim in zero-G? I don't understand why suddenly reaction doesn't work anymore. Is the ship still safe after those two have been messing things up for 50 years? That park is very pretty, but I'm not sure it's good for electrical system integrity. I kept asking questions that the movie wasn't really interested in.
Jan. 14th, 2017 06:21 am (UTC)
"Can't swim in zero g" kind of makes sense to me. You move your arms or legs or both and produce a net backward force on the water, and part of the water moves backward, and your body moves forward. But then your body pushes against the water in front of you and drags against the water alongside you, and that part of the water moves forward. The water isn't under any gravitational force to hold it down into the pool, so it tends to move along with you. My fluid mechanics may be wrong, of course, but I think a free-floating mass of water is a real hazard.

As for the moral point, I feel that it's more sentimentalized than I like. But I can sort of see it. You have Jim saying that he has to save the ship, that they'll die if he doesn't. I don't think Aurora necessarily is fantasizing that they can miraculously survive after the ship shuts down or explodes. I think she's just thinking that he wants him to find a way to save them that won't kill him; she hasn't done the Cold Equations. But I think his willingness to die to save her in some measure atones for the wrong he did her, in her eyes—because when he's getting into the suit, she leans toward him, as if she's about to kiss him. And then after she's rescued and revived him he offers to put her into the autodoc and set it to suspend her again, leaving himself alone. That's practically a textbook example of "making the victim whole." He's fully accepted that what he did to her was wrong, and offered to make it right, and in the process given her back the agency that he took from her. So now when she stays it's because she chooses to.

Of course, a ship that size having only a single autodoc unit is insane, and that is a failure to think things through.

(I'm thinking, by the way, of a Heinlein juvenile, where the hero and his father are travelling on a ship with a fusion drive. The hero gets a tour of the engine room, and another kid asks about how they get into the engines, and the engineer says, essentially, "You can't and you wouldn't want to," and the kid makes a smartass comment about why should they even have engineers? But later the hero talks with his father, and his father explains that under rare conditions, things can go wrong with the fusion drive that can be fixed from inside the fusion drive. So the chief engineer would put on a spacesuit and enter the drive from outside the ship, and a few minutes later the assistant chief engineer would get promoted. Chief engineers, the father says, are chosen for more than technical knowledge. Jim isn't by any means knowledgeable enough for that, but what he wants to do is in that spirit and it would have been a better ending.)
Jan. 14th, 2017 07:42 am (UTC)
Hmm. Does his willingness to sacrifice himself for the ship make up for his deliberately destroying her life? After all, he dies either way -- if he doesn't sacrifice himself the ship blows up and he's a goner. More importantly, I don't think you can balance things like that. I prefer the idea that Aurora realizes that she is also capable of making immoral choices under stress and so she can learn not to judge.

I don't buy his offer to make things whole because I don't think he's capable of it. He'd wake her up again in a few months. Or someone else. It's an empty promise.

As long as we are proposing non-Hollywood endings, I think it would have been better if Aurora had died, and Jim came back in after thinking he was going to die but the tether holds and he surprises himself by surviving and finding that she had stayed in the room to flip the switch even after the leak opened again or the (I'm deeply cynical about how this spaceship works -- it seems to be plot driven). Because then he would have really killed her, but the rest of them had only survived because he had woken/murdered her so she could be there to die saving them, so had he done the right thing? And is he going to do it again with a new person? We could end with him staring at his next prospect.

So you have the Cold Equation, and you have the moral dilemma of a man alone. And it completes her arc of wanting to have an adventure worth writing about.

I want to look at pictures of water in space now -- it seems like the mass of the water as a whole is so much more than the person inside that the person would be able to move about relatively inside the pool. A quick google shows that the consensus seems to support the idea that swimming in zero-g would work about the same, you just don't get a bouyancy advantage by swimming "up". But it's really only an example of how the movie's science is subservient to what they want the emotion-driven plot to be. But a movie that has me thinking about stuff is always fun.
Jan. 14th, 2017 08:09 pm (UTC)
I don't think the timing of your interpretation works. It doesn't seem to me that she ever says "I want the whole ship to die, but you and me to live." What she says is "I want the ship to be saved, but I don't want you to die to save it." And that's a denial that it comes down to A vs. B in the first place; it's not a choice of A over B.

And as it turns out, she's right: He doesn't have to die. His piece of shielding material keeps him from death by heat exposure (I don't see how it prevents him from taking a lethal dose of radiation, but the scriptwriters probably didn't even think of that); and she herself saves him from death by asphyxiation.

Aside from the excessive optimism, this affects your interpretation. Because at the point where she's shoving him into the autodoc, she still believes that he doesn't have to die; and therefore, earlier on, when she's protesting against his plans, she believes the same thing, and is rejecting them because he present them as his going out to his death; so, by implication, she's demanding not that he let everyone die, but that he come up with a plan where no one dies. That's not choosing the two of them over everyone else.

And yet, it looks to me as if she has already forgiven him before he goes out to open the power plant exhaust. So she has forgiven him at a time when she doesn't believe he is risking his life. The forgiveness comes first.

So should he be required to risk his life, or to die, to earn her forgiveness? Yes, she said earlier that he had murdered her, taking her life away from her. Do you pay for taking another person's life by losing your own? Not everyone believes that. Perhaps Aurora doesn't. Or perhaps this is an example of Dr. Johnson's saying that knowing that you are to be hanged in the morning concentrating the mind: Faced with the prospect of actual, imminent death, she may have decided that however justified her anger, she isn't angry enough to wish him dead.

And in any case, if she hasn't accepted that his saving the ship requires his death, then she hasn't accepted that his not dying means letting the ship die (and the two of them with it); and therefore she hasn't accepted that she is making an irrational or unforgiveable choice; and therefore the recognition that she's capable of doing so can't be the reason for her forgiving him for doing so. So I don't think your account saves the appearances.
Jan. 15th, 2017 05:29 am (UTC)
Well, I only saw the movie once, so I may be misremembering things. But I thought when they were talking over the radios, him at the door and her in the engine room, when he says he has to stay and hold the door open when she pulls the lever, they both think this will probably result in his death. And she's almost hysterical, shouting that no, he should come in and try something else, and when he says there is no time, she doesn't care -- she doesn't want to be left behind. That's very close to saying "Let the whole ship die rather than me face being alone."

And I'm not sure I understand the idea that the ship requires his death. They both thought he would not survive. They both tried as hard as possible to give him any chance at all. A slim hope is better than none, and so she went to look for him if only to confirm his death, and then made a hail-mary shot at the auto-doc. This doesn't change the fact that he expected to die, and she did not want to face that if it meant her being left alone.

I don't think she ever explicitly says these things; she's not very verbal despite being a writer. But that's how I saw the emotional logic working, and her understanding of the pain of being left alone would make her decision to stay awake believable. He has done something unforgivable, but it was a deeply human act, and now she can understand how someone can do that and still be someone you trust. He's also the guy she made friends with, and the guy willing to hold a door open to save the ship. (Forgiveness is not the same as not wanting him to die -- she made it that far while she was beating him up in his bedroom by not braining him with the lamp.)

I don't think his offering to die is done to earn her forgiveness, either explicitly or in terms of movie emotional balance. When he goes to the exhaust door, he's not planning to die -- that's a last minute realization because the opening is on a fail-safe. He immediately grasps the idea that he can either die as hero or die anyway, but I don't see that as canceling his earlier decision to drag someone else into his predicament. Is that how it felt to you?
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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