A Closer Look …

… at Passengers: [spoilers] what it means for Aurora to choose to stay with Jim.

In Passengers, the space ship transporting thousands of colonists to a distant planet experiences a malfunction that awakens Jim Preston eighty years ahead of schedule. He cannot return to hibernation (as far as he knows), and he anticipates a life of absolute loneliness which drives him into depression and despair. Eventually he decides – against his own better judgment – to wake up one of the other passengers, the lovely Aurora Lane, whose profile he has been studying.

The problem isn’t that we don’t understand why he did that; the problem is, what do we think of Aurora’s decision to love Jim, and to stay with him, even when she knows that he woke her up on purpose, even after she learns that she can return to hibernation?

For me, the story of Passengers isn’t about the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale; it’s about what happens after the fairy-tale. For me – and for many women – the fairy-tale notions we’ve grown up reading and seeing and learning all too often turn into something we think we should be living. We fall for the suggestion that we are princesses, and that “someday our prince will come,” and that the prince will be handsome and rich and cheerful and perfect, and he will take us away and we will live “happily ever after.” We fall for the suggestion that that’s love. We fall for the thought that real, living human beings can be reduced to two-dimensional cartoon characteristics, and that finding love (and a prince to care for you) is the end of all your problems.

I know actual people in my life who have spent half a century being unhappy and bitter that the men they married weren’t actually princes, and that life was still full of challenges, problems, and complexity. For me, this “princess” syndrome is a sad parallel to Stockholm syndrome – using our emotional expectations to make socioeconomic decisions that guarantee we’re dependent on men and vaguely disappointed with their faults and humanity. We don’t fall in love with our captors; rather, we choose our captors in advance and expect ourselves to fall in love with them.

But when this “prince”, Jim Preston, wakes up his Aurora, they don’t get to ride off into the sunset. There’s even a scene where they watch the ship pass close by a sun, and they’re moved by it … and then they turn around and return to the empty ship. No sunset, no white horse, no happily ever after … just the day-to-day reality of living with one another. They’re falling in love, but that doesn’t fill the ship with other people, or transport them magically to the distant planet. And it certainly doesn’t make a lick of difference to Aurora when she discovers that Jim woke her up – that it was no malfunction of technology but rather his human weakness that has damned her to this life. She hates him. Of course she hates him. She doesn’t care if he’s sorry. She doesn’t care if he had reasons that she can understand. She doesn’t care, because it’s her life, and he’s ruined it. He’s chosen something for her without her knowledge or approval … and when we compare this metaphorical story to real life, we can see all too well how often women – and men too – put themselves in that princess-woken-up-by-the-prince position: our finances, our emotional well-being, the life we carve out for ourselves – we’ve decided that some “prince” should be instrumental in those things, and that we’re helpless to do anything about it.

But in the story – on the space-ship – Aurora doesn’t have any actual power, right? She doesn’t have economic wealth without Jim … well, actually, she’s the one who has the gold level of access, and once she’s awake, he can finally get something out of the food dispenser besides oatmeal. She can’t explore her career … well, actually, her chosen profession of writing and journalism proceeds just as it would have on the distant planet, with the same expectation of her words being heard by future generations. She’s in the same situation Jim is, sentenced to a life on a sleeping ship with only each other and the android waiters for company. The only difference is that he did this to her … and when she sees what he’s done, she stops loving him. She even debates killing him.

But one day she faces the possibility of being alone herself, of losing Jim to the peril (all movies have to face a peril), and she decides that she would rather not be alone. She decides to save his life, and to open her heart again to loving him. She decides to forgive – perhaps because of the love she felt before his misdeed was revealed, perhaps because she suddenly understood in a more visceral way how the prospect of a solitary life had prompted him to make such a selfish choice. She puts him in the medical pod and resuscitates him … even though, technically, he would have been better off dead.

He had debated suicide before he woke up Aurora, and, as far as he knew, the rest of any life he would have on the ship would be spent in the ritualized mutual avoidance he and Aurora developed after their break-up. He had welcomed her attempt to kill him, and looked a bit disappointed that she chose to walk away. Even if he thought that perhaps she might one day be willing to talk to him again, what sort of life is it to spend sixty years with only one other person to talk to and only so many songs stored in the computer? He would have been better off dead; her resuscitation of him, technically, can be described as a selfish act of cruelty.

But if this is the flip side of Sleeping Beauty, why, then, does she decide to stay with him in such a solitary life even after they discover that the med-pod will act as a hibernation unit? He tells her to go into it; neither of them suggests that he go into it – the consequence of his misdeed is that none of his redeeming acts will allow him to be the one who gets the med-pod. So why does she stay? She suddenly has options; why would she choose to stay with Jim and call it love?

Well, at any time, she can change her mind – she can go into the hibernation pod and leave Jim to his lonely fate. And speaking as someone who grew up hearing the “happily-ever-after” myth – and seeing the real-life consequence of waiting for a prince to come and then handing over agency to him – if Aurora has choices, then she has freedom. She has agency. She has everything.

To look at her decision as a sign of Stockholm syndrome is to say, “A woman cannot choose; her alleged decisions are really just siding with her captor. A woman has no agency; her actions are really just a factor of male manipulation.” To look at her decision this way is to say, “Jim is the main character.” And, most importantly, when we look at the theme of this story as a parallel to real life and to real human interaction, seeing her decision in such a way is to say, “Jim is a villain because he did something wrong.” But everyone makes mistakes, and the one that women who find themselves in the “princess” zone make all too often is to decide that life and love and relationships and expectations and careers and responsibility are up to “the man” and are guaranteed to be “perfect”.

Are there plenty of examples in the real world of women (and men) unwisely staying with a partner whose “mistakes” are unacceptable? Of course. But I don’t think this movie is referring to those examples. I think it’s referring to a more general human truth – we all have faults and failing, we make mistakes, we do things because they seemed like a good idea at the time. Real life is full of complications and difficulties and people who aren’t as uniquely and joyfully suited to one another as a pair of cartoon characters. Real life exists on the other side of the sunset, and there are no guarantees of anything.

For me, the answer to the “princess syndrome” is for us to wake up – to take initiative, to explore our options, to be comfortable with our boundaries and our needs and our feelings, to carve out our own lives and to only allow others into them according to what we think will be good for us. For me, this answer addresses the all-too-real problem of staying with people who aren’t good to us – because we’ll know that we can make our own decisions and take care of ourselves, so we won’t be as likely to choose a “captor-victim” dynamic over a true friendship or partnership.

For me, the main character of Passengers is not Jim; it’s Aurora. We know her story before we know Jim’s. We know her emotions and her reasons for them. Our hearts are aligned with hers, because, although we understand why Jim did what he did, we know how horrible it is for her to face the life he has sentenced her to. We know that, if he is to redeem himself, it will probably be by sacrificing his life for her, because nothing less will cut it. If he wants her to believe that he’s good enough for her, then he’s going to have to die. … And he does. He dies. He can give no more than that. In the context of the story, it makes sense to me that she would choose to give him a chance.

But if we look at the theme of the film? – does it still make sense for her to choose to spend a life with him when she could have gone into the med-pod? I think it makes even more sense.

In real life, the outcome isn’t about a sixty-year stint on a ship with no other human being to talk to; it’s about a sixty-year stint with someone we chose for reasons that might have included an expectation of being cared for, or an expectation of our prince’s sunny, cheerful perfection in temperament and talent. In real life, no one’s perfect. In real life, no one “saves” us. In real life, we choose on a daily basis: Do I go into the med-pod or do I stick with this other person? In real life, that choice is a lot harder than we usually expect it to be, especially if we bought the “princess” thing.

If there hadn’t been a med-pod for her to go into, maybe I would feel differently. But Aurora can choose to climb into the med-pod at any moment, and, since she’s the one with gold level access, she can control Jim’s movements on the ship should he try to interfere with her getting into, and staying in, the med-pod. She didn’t need Jim to wake her up with a prince’s kiss. She didn’t need him to survive the peril. She doesn’t need him for gold level access. To see him as the captor and her as the hostage is to give him power over her that he never had in the first place, and it suggests that the ship – and the story – are somehow his and that she’s just a kidnapped visitor. But in fact Aurora holds all the cards, and her voice (as she narrates her writing that she’s left for the colonists to find) is the only one we hear.

In fact, Jim has to go forward knowing that Aurora holds those cards. He has to know that he’s only alive because she saved him – twice. He has to know, for the rest of his life, that her staying with him is a tremendous gift and that his original misdeed was egregious beyond words – his worth is now inextricably linked to her willingness to forgive. … Maybe he’s the hostage. Maybe when she resuscitated him, that “kiss” woke him up, and now he’s embracing pseudo-romantic into-the-sunset notions that revolve exclusively around “well, at least I won’t be alone anymore.” Maybe we should question why he’s okay with that.

But I don’t think we should question Aurora’s decision … because it was hers to make. Ironically enough, Jim always knew that – that’s why he felt conflicted and horrible. And if even one princess (waiting for her perfect saviour-prince) watches the story and thinks, “I, too, can make my own decisions,” then the message was a good one indeed.

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