Science fiction romance demands a delicate balance that is not easy to achieve. For the romance to work, the hero and heroine must have a fiery chemistry that will attract an audience right away, and a bond that will survive all the obstacles we devilish authors can throw in their paths. For the science fiction to work, the world we create must be both believable and intriguing, expanding our readers’ minds in some way as they follow the story.
And if that balance is difficult to achieve on the page, just think how hard it must be to accomplish on the big screen, where it is so easy to overwhelm an audience with special effects on the SF side and neglect the much smaller-scale human interaction of the romance (MAN OF STEEL, OBLIVION, any superhero movie with a female love interest). After all, any number of great science fiction movies come to mind when the subject comes up. But only a handful of science fiction romances make the grade—AVATAR being far and away the best of them.
That’s why I was so excited to see PASSENGERS, currently in theaters, starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Here is a film that satisfies on the SF side, with beautiful visuals of a lovely interstellar ship and of the stars themselves, with an external plot that is driven by familiar space-going emergencies. And yet, the romantic arc between the very appealing hero and heroine is central to the story, and, indeed, inseparable from it. Finally!
Pratt and Lawrence have just the right chemistry for this job, with the able catalyst of Michael Sheen in the role of a robotic bartender who serves as a sort of informal counselor to both parties. We are enchanted with their romance and root for them as a couple, just as we would in any rom-com. We want them to succeed together, despite the dark secret at the heart of their love’s origins, and in defiance of the challenges that inevitably come.
Of course, that dark secret (which I cannot reveal here for spoiler-y reasons), has thrown the critical world for a complete loop. PASSENGERS has been excoriated by the critics because of the ethical dilemma posed by this plot twist, which has been described as “icky,” “stalkery” and “misogynistic.” This from the same people who see the moral dilemma posed by a childless couple hiding the baby they found on a beach from its natural mother (in THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS) as high art.
This central moral question only makes PASSENGERS a much more interesting film, raising it a level above the usual space opera. The audience leaving the theater has more to talk about than just whether Pratt and Lawrence were good together or whether the special effects in the nul-grav swimming pool scene were cool or not. Viewers must decide for themselves whether what Pratt’s character did was justified or right or not; whether Lawrence’s character reacted realistically or as they themselves would. And, finally, they must determine whether the couple’s final solution to their external dilemma—a lifetime aboard a ship originally meant to be only a sleeper transport to a distant colony planet—is a good one.
As a romance reader, dark secrets and slightly stalkery behavior are really nothing new to me, either. Paranormal romance, in particular, is rife with such tropes. In fact, PASSENGERS could be said to combine SF’s well-known “Adam and Eve” trope with PNR’s “fated mates” trope to good effect. And no harm done.
Science geeks will no doubt point out, too, that artificial gravity produced by spinning the ship would not cut out suddenly when the power went out. Thus the coolest scene in the movie (in my opinion) is scientific BS. Okay. It still looked awesome. I give it an “A” for conceptual effort.
PASSENGERS deserves much better than it’s been getting from mainstream reviewers. Go see it on the big screen and enjoy the best SFR film since AVATAR. PASSENGERS is definitely a GO!