The Passengers Problem: Should art promote only positive portrayals of relationships?

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Despite boasting the talents of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, and an original screenplay (almost unheard of in modern Hollywood), Passengers tanked at the global box-office. Given the controversy surrounding the film’s problematic presentation of issues regarding consensual relationships, many are pleased to see it perform so poorly. Marketed as a galactic rom-com, Passengers seemed like the perfect holiday date-night movie but many viewers were shocked to discover that the glossy trailers hid a dark secret. Rather than being a space-bound love story, Passengers explores the staggeringly selfish act of Jim Preston (Pratt) who dooms innocent Arora Lane (Lawrence) to death by waking her up ninety years early. Many media outlets decried the film as it normalises abuse for the sake of dramatic tension. Whilst this depiction of a relationship is unsettling it raises a very important question: does art have to promote positive portrayals of relationships?

Normalising abuse within cinema can potentially have very negative effects on audiences. Sadly, the portrayal of stalking tactics successfully winning the perpetrator their love interest is by no means new in Hollywood romantic comedies. A startling study published by Hollywood in the beginning of 2016 indicated that women who watch films wherein aggressive, persistent behaviour – stalking – is conveyed as romantic, are more likely to be compliant towards similar behaviour in reality. In Passengers, Preston is moved to wake Arora having engaged in interstellar social media stalking (trawling through her personal data files and videos), inadvertently legitimising such behaviour. This depiction is particularly dangerous in an age of social media wherein individuals are given unprecedented access to our lives through websites such as Facebook and Instagram, and suggests to media saturated generations that such activities are perfectly okay when they really aren’t.

Although such a depiction of illicit behaviour being rewarded is frustrating for audiences does this mean that such relationships should not be explored?

Whilst set firmly within the romantic-comedy genre, Passengers is also a science-fiction film. One of the defining strengths of this genre is the way it forces audiences to confront difficult issues and this is no less true of Passengers as it explores the consequences and effects of prolonged isolation. When questioned about the controversial depiction of consent director Morten Tyldum responded that:

‘It’s not as if it’s an accidental oversight of the film, where we, through some cultural blindness, have failed to see the appalling nature of our hero’s actions. It is the subject of the film. And I think that making a movie that leaves people room to argue about what they would have done, what they could have forgiven, what they can understand or fail to understand, I think that’s great. I think its good story-telling. What I don’t believe the movie does is endorse or exonerate anyone. The movie looks, even-handedly, at the dilemma everybody was in. I think putting good people in impossible circumstances makes for fascinating storytelling.’

Passengers forces audiences to consider how they would respond to an impossible situation and excels as it presents a moral conundrum ripe for debate which is what science-fiction films do best. However, I disagree that the film does not exonerate anyone because by the close of the film Preston is exonerated by Arora’s decision to decline the opportunity to go back into stasis choosing instead to stay with him as, conveniently, there is only one working stasis pod. Conversely there are some that would argue that by having Arora elect to stay with him it presents another moral conundrum that forces the audience to consider whether they could abandon another human being to a life of solitary confinement, doomed to die alone. Even so we cannot escape the fact that at its heart Passengers is ultimately a story of a lower-class man manipulating a privileged woman and depriving her of her agency by guilt-tripping her into staying with him.

A common theme in response to the film is how audiences feel cheated by pre-release material which led them to believe that Passengers is an interstellar romance. However it will come as a surprise to many to learn that this wasn’t always how the film was promoted. Amid reports that Lawrence and Pratt were in talks to star in the film in 2015 executives released the following plot synopsis:

Passengers chronicles what happens when a malfunction causes one [passenger]to be rudely awakened 90 years before anyone else. Unable to fix the situation and seemingly doomed to spend his time dying alone, he decides to take the unusual and controversial step of waking up a fellow passenger. Can love bloom in the echoing confines of the ship?’

This synopsis makes no secret that the film intended to explore a controversial issue, so why would the studio actively seek to hide this divisive plot “twist” instead utilising pre-release material to promote glossy special effects and its stars’ chemistry? The short answer is money. Recently science-fiction has fallen by the wayside meaning films within this genre are less likely to be financially successful. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the marketing team elected to focus more exclusively on more attractive elements of the film to make it appeal to a much wider audience rather than alienating them with big moral questions.

Nevertheless can we excuse a studio’s blatant deception and forgive its representation of Preston and Arora’s relationship and should art be expected to promote positive portrayals of consensual relationships?

Whilst I cannot condone the way in which cinema is currently normalising aggressive persistent behaviour in relationships for the sake of dramatic tension, I appreciate how Passengers deals with complex issues of prolonged isolation. As a science-fiction film, the depiction of Preston and Arora’s relationship is effective because it forces audiences to grapple with difficult moral conundrums. However, neither Passengers’ misleading marketing campaign nor Hollywood’s continual legitimisation of such relationships can be forgiven. It is time for the industry to re-evaluate how it depicts relationships. They can do this through changing how romantic leads pursue one another in rom-coms to avoid condoning illicit behaviour, and by better marketing its films. With that being said, negative portrayals of relationships need to be explored on screen but under no circumstances should Hollywood seek to legitimise them.

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Graduate in Film and an MA student in Creative Writing. Avid reader of YA novels. Cosplayer. Storyteller. Netflixer. Browncoat. Bucketlist includes flying an X-Wing, completing a novel, and working with Joss Whedon and Michelle Fairley.

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