who are we to judge

Let’s Talk About the Ethics of Passengers’ Big Twist

Chris Pratt; Jennifer Lawrence; Michael Sheen
Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, and Michael Sheen in Passengers. Photo: Jaimie Trueblood/Columbia Pictures

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 leeway. In this, Passengers offers three main arguments in his favor. One: He and Aurora stop the ship from a major malfunction at the end of the movie and, in doing so, save the lives of the other 5,000 people onboard. Two: Laurence Fishburne, who briefly wakes up from his pod to offer some expository dialogue and then die, likens Jim’s actions to those of a drowning man who can’t help but pull other people down with him. Three: At the end of the movie, instead of going back into a newly discovered sleeping pod, Aurora decides to stay with Jim anyway. Their love was real!

The first argument in Jim’s favor reads a little like the infamous trolley problem, a favorite of subject introductory philosophy courses and also memes. More specifically, it’s like the variation of the problem that involves the main actor having to take action in order to avert a catastrophe — pushing a fat man in front of the trolley to stop it from killing a lot of other people. In this instance, Aurora is the sacrifice required to save the lives of all of those other people. And since Aurora would go down with the rest of the ship if she wasn’t woken up anyway, then the choice is fairly obvious. (Though, if you argue that killing someone is wrong no matter what, then Jim’s stuck.) But Jim makes the decision to wake up Aurora far before he knows about the problems with the ship, so it takes a lot of shaky logic to argue that he’s acting in good faith in the first instance. In the grand scheme of things, everything turns out okay, but that doesn’t mean it was done with good intentions.

Fishburne’s argument, that Jim wasn’t in control of his actions because he was acting like a drowning person, is more compelling. If Jim had lost control of his actions at the time when he decides to wake up Aurora, then we can’t justify him as a moral actor, and any discussion of whether his choice was right or wrong is moot. The problem with this is that Passengers doesn’t sell us on Jim’s despair. Sure, he has a big beard and is pretty sad about his life, but drowning in loneliness isn’t the same as drowning in waters. Jim knows what he’s doing is wrong, and yet he does it anyway.

Finally, we have the case of Aurora’s decision to forgive Jim after she falls in love with him. On the surface, this seems to clear everything up. If she isn’t bothered by the fact that her life was ruined, who are we to judge? Again, the flaws in this argument become apparent quickly. First, Aurora’s forgiveness is immaterial to the larger consequences of Jim’s actions. Falling in love with your murderer doesn’t stop them from being a murderer, just like rape doesn’t stop being rape if the victim later says they enjoyed it. Second, love in general is a pretty flimsy ethical justification for your actions. When Jim first considers waking up Aurora, he thinks that she’s his true love, something that’s lamp-shaded with Aurora’s fairy-tale name. But that’s not something he can know with certainty. If Aurora left a sticky note on her pod that said, “Please wake me up, but only if you look like Chris Pratt,” then we’d be talking. But as things stand, true love doesn’t exist, and it also doesn’t excuse murder, or entrapment, or really anything at all.

There are a few situations that might justify waking up Aurora from her sleeping pod — the hope you will prevent a clear and imminent catastrophe, say, or because you knew with absolute certainty that she wanted it to happen. And it’s possible to assume a sort of amoral situation in which she wakes up as an accident, or when Jim has no control over his decisions. Passengers doesn’t give us any of those situations. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad movie, but it certainly means that Jim makes a very bad decision.

Is Passengers’ Twist Ethical?