Let’s Talk About the Ethics of Passengers’ Big Twist
Spoilers for Passengers to follow.
The central twist — or, really, the premise — of Passengers depends on Chris Pratt’s character, Jim, waking up on a spaceship 90 years before it arrives at its destination, and then deciding to revive Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora, so he’ll have some company. The film ultimately finds this gesture to be sorta romantic, at least once Jim stops lying to Aurora and admits that he’s the reason she’s awake. Critics have generally disagreed, calling Jim’s move “terrifying,” “creepy,” “spineless,” and, as Vulture’s David Edelstein put it, just absurd.
So if Passengers is meant to present an ethical dilemma, it doesn’t do a very good job of it. But still, as the film spends much of the latter half of its run time trying to offer up excuses for Jim’s decision, it’s worth thinking about why, exactly, the film’s premise feels so icky. Do any of the film’s explanations for Jim’s actions really stick? Is there any good ethical framework for what he does?
Let’s start with the basics of the situation: After being woken up from his pod due to a mysterious technical malfunction, Jim spends a year alone on the luxury starliner Avalon, descending into total loneliness. He knows he is going to die on the ship, probably alone. He sees Aurora in her sleep pod, watches her preflight interviews, and decides that she is the one for him. After much hemming, hawing, and consulting with Michael Sheen’s robot bartender, he decides to wake her up. He immediately regrets this, so he lies to Aurora about what woke her up, and hey, what do you know, they end up falling in love.
Pretty much all of Jim’s actions are wrong in and of themselves, so if we’re going by any sort of deontological system of ethics — that is, rule-based and concerned with absolutes — things are looking pretty bad for Jim: By waking up Aurora, he’s effectively killing her. (The ship, as far as he’s aware, doesn’t possess the means to put anyone back to sleep.) Also, by neglecting to tell Aurora the truth, he’s lying to her in order to get her to sleep with him, which is bad. But really, the murder thing stands out. At one point, after learning the truth, Aurora shouts at Jim, “You murdered me!” Let’s not forget about that.
If we’re going to judge Jim by the consequences of his actions or consider any other mitigating factors, perhaps we have a little more…