Passengers: Why I Empathised with the Robot Barman (All the Spoilers!)

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I recently went to see Passengers, the science fiction film that has been causing quite a stir recently due to the nature of the romantic relationship it portrays. In the end, the character I empathised with the most was not either of the lovebird leads, but rather the robot barman played by Michael Sheen.

Why? Well, first off, I’m going to have to spoil the whole dang movie.

Jim is in stasis with the other passengers of an interplanetary flight, but he wakes up 90 years early due to a malfunction. While facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life devoid of human contact, Jim becomes fascinated by Aurora, a writer who is sealed comfortably in her stasis pod. His desire is to wake her up, so that he has companionship – even though, in the process, he will be destroying her life.

After agonising over this prospect, Jim finally goes through with waking up Aurora, falsely claiming that she was woken up in a malfunction. The two bond and eventually fall in love – only for Aurora to find out the horrible truth.

She is understandably upset, but despite her attempts to stay away from Jim, they are thrown together once more by necessity. It turns out that Jim’s malfunctioning stasis pod was just the first in a series of malfunctions which risk destroying the ship. Jim and Aurora put their heads together, and succeed in averting disaster in an action-packed climax.

After this, Jim finds out that the ship’s one medical pod can also provide stasis. He offers to send Aurora back into hibernation, so that she can awake with the other passengers in 90 years. But after their recent experiences she has fallen back in love with Jim, and instead opts to spend the rest of her life with him. The film ends with the crew waking up and finding an Edenic garden on board the ship, cultivated by the (now-dead) Jim and Aurora.

Here is screenwriter Jon Spaights about his intentions in telling this story:

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 that’s good storytelling. What I don’t believe the movie does is endorse or exonerate anyone. The movie looks, evenhandedly, at the dilemma everybody was in. I think putting good people in impossible circumstances makes for fascinating storytelling.

The relationship between Jim and Aurora is certainly uncomfortable, but is it plausible? The two considerations are, after all, entirely separate, and it is quite possible for fiction to portray a romantic relationship that is unhealthy but realistic. Had Passengers been a novel or a TV series, it would have had ample time to convincingly develop the bond between the two leads.

But as it is, the film never finds the time during its two hours to offer a solid psychological underpinning to the love between Jim and Aurora. Every major emotional beat feels arbitrary, right back to Jim falling in love with the stasis-bound Aurora.

The thing that drives the two characters together is, at the end of the day, Hollywood formula: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl amidst explosions.

This is why I liked Arthur, the robot barman. He is the wisest of the three main characters, as he understands that he is a robot and has all of the psychological limitations that come with this (“These are not a robot’s questions,” he gently explains when Jim confronts him with an ethical dilemma).

Jim and Aurora are robots as well: they are programmed to behave according to the codes of a scriptwriter’s formula. But unlike Arthur, they believe themselves to be humans. As I left the cinema I felt pity for those two robo-people, oblivious to the mechanical natures of their minds, capable only of obeying an artificial simulacrum of human affection.

Arthur, on the other hand, I would not have minded sitting down for a chat with. Now there was a guy with his head screwed on right.

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