Interview | Morten Tyldum on the Troubling Ethics of ‘Passengers’

To some, Passengers was one of the most anticipated motion pictures of the year. It’s a big budget sci-fi spectacle starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as passengers on a space voyage who woke up too early, and now must spend the rest of their lives alone, marooned on a luxurious starship, directed by Oscar nominee Morten Tyldum and based on a script by Jon Spaihts that made the illustrious “Black List,” which singles out the very best screenplays in the industry.

And yet the film itself, which is being marketed as a romantic disaster movie in space, turned out very differently than expected. Passengers currently holds a brutal 28% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on reviews – like my own – from critics who couldn’t get past the film’s central conceit, which has been hidden in all of the trailers. Chris Pratt wakes up first, develops a fixation on a sleeping fellow passenger, and wakes her up all by himself because he thinks they’re soulmates, dooming her to die of old age with only her kidnapper/murderer/stalker for company.

Also: ‘Collateral Beauty’ and ‘Passengers’ Have Spoiled the Concept of Spoilers

It’s a conceit that Morten Tyldum acknowledges is ethically complicated, but not one that he seems to find as creepy as the rest of us do. I sat down with the filmmaker the day after I initially screened Passengers to find out what he thinks of the film’s troubling ethics and disturbing subtext, and explain why I found the protagonist of his film to be the real villain. To his credit, he welcomes various interpretations of his movie, but he doesn’t seem to agree with me that it plays more like a horror movie than a romance.

In order to discuss the ethics of Passengers we do have to go into official SPOILER territory, beyond the fundamental premise of the film (which isn’t a spoiler and should never have been considered a spoiler to begin with), and into the film’s conclusion, which holds many of the keys to unlocking how the filmmaker feels about the events that transpire in his movie. You have been warned.

Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures

Crave: Passengers is an interesting film from a variety of perspectives but the one I want to focus on is the ethical perspective.

Morten Tyldum: Okay.

Your protagonist wakes up, lives in isolation for an entire year, develops a fixation on a young woman, and wrestles with the idea of waking her up.

Can we talk about that?

Yes, let’s talk about that.

Yeah, but can we? I think that’s something they want to…

I will hold this interview until the movie is out. Because I feel this is the relevant conversation. This is the thing people are going to ask themselves when the movie is over.

This is going to come out after the movie? Because this is a big spoiler. It’s not in the trailer, not in anything. Because it is [what people are going to ask themselves], and I think I want that to be the conversation. I think that he is what it says in the movie: he is a drowning man that dragged somebody down with him, and he’s doing something which… I liked it because what we would have done? Would we have done the same thing? Because it is, in many ways, taking somebody’s future away from them. It’s taking somebody’s life away. But will you do it because you need it?

And I think that’s also, this movie turns away… at the beginning of the movie he needs her, and it comes to a certain point where he loves her, and he loves her when he says “I want you to go back to sleep.” That’s what love is. Love is not selfish. Love is something else. So that is part of his journey.

But that decision to wake her up, that is selfish. He doesn’t know her yet.

Oh, completely. It’s completely selfish. It’s because he’s drowning. That’s what we do. It’s a desperate need, that you do at a desperate hour. And I think it’s interesting that characters do that. They they make dark choices. I think it’s also, and I think it’s big kudos to Chris [Pratt]’s character. This is something people, everybody’s been afraid of that. “Will we sympathize with him? Would you like him?” But the thing is that you understand him. That’s some of his power as an actor is that you can really identify with his this man who goes through this and does this, because I think it’s something most of us would have done.

Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures

Fair enough, and yet, while I do sympathize with his decision and indeed his plight – it’s a terrible situation – I’m not sure I can forgive him.

But that is… maybe that’s okay. That is up to everyone. How, if you… I forgive him. Especially because he gives her the chance of going back, and it becomes her choice, which is a crucial moment in the film, when it then becomes her [decision]. I mean, he takes away her choice and then he gives it back to her. He gives her that choice. And I think it’s interesting, I think it should be up to each and everyone to say how would they see [it].

I want that to be the conversation when people walk out. I want it to be like, “What would you have done? Would you have done this, would you have not done this? Is it possible to identify with it or not?” And I think that is a very interesting choice and that’s a thing movies can do. Movies can play with these choices.

And yet that decision she makes at the end, it’s somewhat romanticized. We find that they’ve created themselves a Garden of Eden together at the end. Her decision doesn’t seem entirely fair there, because if she decides to go back to sleep she’s dooming him to isolation and loneliness. Couldn’t pity be a factor there, and doesn’t that lend the ending an element of tragedy?

It does. Yeah. Then again, I think she also comes to a point where… maybe that’s the reason too, but I like to believe that… in many ways this is a relationship story that has a lot of things to it too. It’s sort of like you’re taking the natural relationship between the two to the extreme. It’s the extreme lie, it’s the extreme unfaithfulness. It’s the extreme whatever. And can it survive it?

And it’s a little bit glass half full, glass half empty. If you want to believe that it is possible, that by loving somebody you are willing to do that. We’ve all done stuff for love that… or felt that, if it’s to your child or to your spouse or to your parents or to your brothers, whatever, but it is. I like that the movie takes us there. And yes, it romanticizes it, but I like to believe that they actually had a rich life there. That they were able to. Because I think that if she went back to sleep and woke up, I think the loss of him would be something that will weigh heavily on her.

Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures

That’s true. That is one way you could have ended the story though. There could have been that. You chose to end it in a romantic way, so it seems as though you have forgiven him.

I have. I have forgiven him. Because I also understand him in that moment. That moment, driven so far. I think that the solitude and the isolation, how it would impact you, and how you’re willing to do questionable things when we’re driven far enough. I think that’s actually honest. I think he did a very honest thing that I think a lot of people would have done if they had the opportunity to do.

And again, I sympathize with the decision he made. I just don’t forgive him for it, that’s my own personal take on the matter. The film, by nature of the plot and where the plot goes, makes it almost necessary – in an almost predestined way – for him to have woken her up because in the end he couldn’t have saved the ship without at least one other person.

That’s another thing. There need to be two, which is a way of saying it so it gives… but to me, that is less interesting than the actual choice. That was something that was put into a later version of the draft. I said we need to give her the choice. Someone else asked, “Did the ship wake him up on purpose because he could actually fix it?” I don’t even know that question.

It’s an interesting point because he talks about what he wanted by going to Homestead II. He wanted to be able to fix things, he wanted to be able to build his own house. And by the end of the film he has: he’s fixed the ship and he’s built his own house. He was useful.

And she wants to… which is exactly the point of it. Like he, in many ways, fulfills his life. And she does as well. She has this need to write this story, and her thing is that is she thinks she has to live up to something, and she’s looking outward. She has to do the extreme thing to create, because you have to live a life of adventure. “If my life is boring, my story will be boring.” So she is writing her story and I actually like to think that her book is probably pretty amazing, because the only thing she can look at is inside. It has to be a brutal, honest look at herself and her own journey.

Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures

And yet he got what he wanted, what he set out to do. She set out with very specific goals…

Yup.

She didn’t get those goals.

She gets it. She set out to write a book.

She set out to write a book, but she set her path in a certain way and that got taken away from her.

And I think that the path was a desperate one. That’s how I like to see it.

Her path? Her path was desperate?

Yeah, because it was a path made out of feeling that she needed to live up to something. Like she had a dad who was a writer, who had adventures, that was a war reporter. He did things. She’s doing something extreme. She’s doing something that, “I’m going to go somewhere, far into the future.”

To me, Aurora is the essence of… the big [disease] that is this art is we never live in the now. We always live far ahead. We live in the future. “Okay, I’m going to do this because in two years, in one year, in six months, this great thing is going to happen to me. So that’s why I’m going to try to do it.” And she is going to do something that is going to be great for her in 240 years. She hopes it will be. […]

So I think her stop forced her to stop off and only be able to live in the now, and she has to… sort of like, as she says, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written, but I don’t like it.” Because she is forced to stop off and look at something in a mirror and say something. And that is the deeper meaning of the character, and something which I like about her.

Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures

“Living in the now” is a matter of perspective though, once you put in the idea of cryogenic stasis. I mean, she was just going to wake up the next day. She was still going to have the time, was she not?

She will, definitely, but at the same time it’s sort of like a metaphor for that. It becomes very symbolic in that you plan that something will happen really, really far, far off. It’s about the future and it’s something interesting that… I like the idea of taking two characters that have to do nothing but live in the now, because it’s a little bit like Groundhog Day. The day only exists now. And they were needed. They did save 5,000 people. Something would not be possible because of them. So I think they actually find out that their life had a purpose, and they found each other.

Great, but that purpose on the other hand, our hero had no way of knowing that purpose would come into play later. So the decision was still his and his alone to make and I think the issue that I’m not hearing you talk too much about, in regards to Aurora’s character, is the idea of her free will. 

There’s a scene where she has discovered not too long ago that Chris Pratt’s character has betrayed her, that he has indeed taken her life away. She is trying to isolate herself, take as much space as she can to get away from him. She’s jogging, and he – in an effort to communicate with her – gets on the loudspeaker. He takes away, in that moment, any safety that she has. He becomes ubiquitous. 

Completely, and it’s a moment which I love, and I think actually the movie addresses that moment. He says, “It was like I wasn’t trapped anymore,” he says. In that moment she’s trapped in a tunnel with no way to get out and trying to block out the voice, so he’s completely invading her life in a way. Definitely. It’s a really complicated situation where she has all the right to be angry.

It was very interesting when we shot the scene when she attacks him at night, when she beats the shit out of him, when his hands come up, and she finds the crowbar, and it comes to that moment when she can kill him, and she wants to kill him. When she grabs the crowbar she wants to kill him. She wants to smash his head in for taking her life. He has violated her in all the ways possible by actually taking away her life. But there’s this moment where he’s so aware of it, and lets her do that.

That becomes the complexity of their relationship because she also has seen who he is, and she’s also seen the man and actually, she has felt love for him. That’s why she’s not able to do it, and I think it’s her curse at that moment that she hates somebody that she loved, and she’s feeling both feelings for him.

Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures

And yet, did she ever really love him? All that love was based on a lie.

Here’s the thing, though. I think that yes, again, if it was a need or it was a love… for her, she wasn’t aware of that lie, and I think that he can also love her even if it was a lie. Again, the whole thing about a marriage. There can be unfaithfulness, there can be deception in a marriage and there can still be love there. It’s the complexity of human feelings. It’s like there’s no easy… I think to do a movie like that, actually plays around with these feelings, even on a blockbuster level in a movie that is for entertainment, it’s actually a very complex relationship.

Sure, and yet there has to be a line crossed somewhere in that marriage. Marriages are hard and people make mistakes and people hurt each other’s feelings. It just seems that what he did to her goes above and beyond to me.

Oh, of course. And still it’s by sacrificing himself and by giving him the opportunity to come back, I think he redeems himself in her eyes and she makes that choice, which I think is about the power of that emotion. This is the thing that either you have to believe in sort of like the romantic aspect of it, that it was worth it for her, or not.

If I don’t believe that, do you think the film functions almost as a horror movie about someone going through Stockholm Syndrome? Or is that not your intention at all?

It’s not our intention. But with every movie people should be allowed to take away whatever they want from it, and I love that it becomes a discussion afterwards. Because that’s what it should be.

Top Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.