Scribbler’s Saga #24 – Passengers, a Postmortem 

Posted: April 5, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Now that Paramount’s Passengers has safely moved into home video, I think we can say the movie needed a doctor. Two of them, in fact, an extra autodoc machine and, more importantly, a script doctor. 

A quick look at Box Office Mojo says at approximately $300 million the movie eked its way just barely into the black. This assumes a reported budget of $110 million and a longstanding rule of thumb to double the reported production budget. And the IRS will be told the movie tanked due to studio accounting shifting general operational expenses onto the movie’s ledgers.

One possible answer to why a film about passengers on a sub-light colony starship who wake up early, have a relationship, break up and get back together in order to fix the broken ship got kicked in the teeth: politics. Another, to be discussed in later paragraphs, is that the story needed another go around with the many script doctors that help keep the Hollywood engine going. And it’s nearly impossible to separate the sign of the times political vitriol from the fact that really good script doctoring solves both the pseudo-politics and the story issues of a movie.

Before we go further, I’ll briefly repeat my pro-Free Speech, pro-Artistic Expression, anti-Vitriol approach to art. Yes, art can and sometimes should make the viewer angry. But, the worst people who light up social media seem to lack the awareness of context for why the art came out the way that it did.

Was the artist deliberately playing Devil’s Advocate to provoke a response and discussion in a way that uses a negative example to teach? Was the artist merely going with the inertia of 150,000 years of human storytelling that echoed the Men Rule tropes of society as a whole?

Are those storytelling tropes highlighted by nearly every How to Write a Story book in our literary marketplace truly as psychologically immutable as claimed? And if the storytelling tropes described in Blake Snyder, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell are deemed immutable, either because of genetics (in our DNA) or epigenetics (the related science of how biochemical triggers change how DNA expresses itself: on or off), does this mean that any well meaning attempts to change how we create art that don’t take into account the factors are doomed to fail because the consumers will simply reject things they don’t understand?

I don’t have these answers. No one does really. We live in a global society where the few name-value rock star scientists are almost all astrophysicists. A class of people who just aren’t going to take ten years away from measuring universe expansion, dark matter and string theory to really go everywhere in the world with the intent of telling us if Joseph Campbell, Robert Bly and the rest were, in strict point of fact, full of shit. There might not be enough math in this field where people basically read a lot of books and create PhD level compare and contrast essays between two ancient literary properties.

I try to forgive art of which I might not fully understand or approve. Yes, forgiveness, a nasty word largely associated with male-dominated Christianity, but of which clearly everybody needs more. And understanding. You get the idea. It is this perception that I should take the time to experience new art trying to understand as much underlying context as possible, while speaking to the artist as a human being, well, that’s enough to pick a fight these days.

So anyway, the politics of Passengers. Nearly every script leak and advanced showing allowed the angry among filmgoers to bore in on one key story element; that Chris Pratt’s character when faced with the kind of crushing loneliness only really cinematically experienced by Bruce Dern’s character in Silent Running and Dave Bowman in 2001 woke up Jennifer Lawrence without her consent. Social media blew up with shrill cries of Rape Culture and a rejection of the decision of the female lead to forgive the man that woke her up. There are refutations to most of that noise that I’ll leave aside in favor the movie needed more development that likely would’ve solved this problem and made the watching experience better.

No, the solution is not rewrite the script so that the woman wakes up the man in order to save herself from drowning and then fix the ship. Yes, I’ve heard from a few people, some women included, that the simple role reversal ploy would’ve meant far less online vitriol because the loud and angry segments of progressive viewers would be okay with a woman acting badly instead of a patriarchal man. Which frankly just exposes hypocrisy and a double standard that doesn’t represent improvement for women if her gains come at the expense of the men and is likely to just cause a violent retrenching back in favor of men at a later date (the pendulum theory of society).

Eventually if an evenhanded society is deemed important, someone has to reach into the pit at the risk of losing fingers on the wire to stop the pendulum. Or the observer could wait for the swinging to stop on its own because even as a sociopolitical metaphor there is simply no perpetual motion with pendulums or any other devices. A fancy way to say it should be as equally unacceptable for the woman on the ship to allegedly wake up a man without consent as the shrill cries about Chris Pratt’s character.

In both cases, the character that did the waking up should be judged the same way with potential mitigation coming from that these actions actually saved the ship and thousands of blissfully unaware passengers. The moral balancing act between the forcible wake up and saving the ship is a nuance to this story that I don’t feel those that chose anger give full credit. And the lazy methodology of a simple gender switch doesn’t solve this underlying problem.

So how does one go about fixing this movie so that it’s empirically better than an average relationship movie on one side and a politically charged nightmare on the other? Double down on the mind bending science fiction by enhancing story elements that already exist on screen but were curiously not explored…steal from 2001 and make the computer the agency driving the movie.

Chris Pratt wakes up because of an apparent glitch. But, was it a glitch? The character is described as a plumber/handyman traveling to the distant colony world on the economy ticket. He is exactly who an intelligent ship that knows it just took a cosmic bullet and may die killing thousands of helpless people in its care would wake up in a cry for help.

Jennifer Lawrence could then be woken up because the ship simply acts like a dating computer and matches the man to the best possible woman on the ship. The AI doesn’t want her chosen repairman to go crazy from loneliness. So she makes an executive decision to wake up the three people most likely to save the ship. The handyman, the helpmeet and Lawrence Fishburne as the engineering officer who provides two functions in the story, he checks the handyman’s homework and mediates the dispute. In my hypothetical rewrite Lawrence Fishburne’s character would also serve a third function, to point the other characters towards the computer as the entity behind their vastly changed lives driving the film to the end.

My solution to this problem created by loud pseudo-politics would on the surface actually make the story less dramatic. Movies are asserted by the late Blake Snyder in Save the Cat to work according to the same fifteen beat structure, so once the type of story is chosen by the writer the beats become clear. Basically, the woman learning the truth about waking up at the man’s discretion acts as the Third Act All is Lost Moment intended to create obstacles for the characters late in the movie. If she’s angry about waking up she might not help fix the ship.

My solution adds another wrinkle of the intelligent computer wakes up the woman, but contrives to make the man think he’s responsible. He was depicted as being nearly out of his mind with loneliness; it would be easy to get him to believe he pushed the Thaw Button. Lawrence Fishburne’s character could find curious clues to the ship’s sentience before he dies leaving breadcrumbs for Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to forgive each other, fix the ship and confront the ship for screwing them over.

Yes, these fixes solve the political outrage expressed at the movie, but they also give the audience a more impactful experience. The story would rise from an average romance to a cool twist ending where the ship is alive. A better reason to play script doctor.

Sadly, these story elements were never fully explored and so now I’m a crank with a pet methodology to fix things. But, I also bring it up to nudge some of us writers towards getting paid for fixing movies that other writers couldn’t because of a failure of imagination. If attacking films for political reasons is the new normal, there will be lots of jobs for script doctors.

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