The Crop: Passengers
The Production Company: Davis Entertainment?
The Director: None
The Writer: Jon Spaihts
The Actors: Nada
The Logline: "A guy wakes up on a space ship that’s on a 120-year mission 90 years early, and apparently is the only one on the ship. Allegedly pretty good, a character study in a sci-fi environment."
The Context: The above is all I had to go on when the screenplay landed on top of my Everest-sized "to-read" pile. Being a fan of Geoff Murphy’s similarly-themed The Quiet Earth (and "Last Man on Earth" scenarios in general), I decided to give it a shot (beats flipping the latest drafts of Voltron and The Birds).
The Script: Mixing elements of The Quiet Earth, Silent Running and The Shining, Jon Spaiht’s Passengers is the most compelling piece of science-fiction I’ve read since I got obsessed with an early draft of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris over five years ago (and that sucker was on track to be a sci-fi classic before Soderbergh lost his nerve and betrayed Stanislaw Lem’s novel). It’s one of my favorite kinds of stories – an intimate tale set against a seemingly limitless canvas – and Spaihts tells it deftly. Maybe too deftly. Even though the plight of James Preston, Rate Two Mechanical Engineer, kept me completely absorbed throughout, I found myself disappointed whenever Spaihts went in a more commercial direction with the material – which was often. Though his various capitulations to Hollywood convention are far from shameless, they seem out of place; Spaihts is too smart to give in at every turn just to ensure his movie gets made. I’d also say he’s too cautious: there’s no way this script as it currently exists will ever get greenlit without being compromised or utterly travestied.
Passengers is enveloping because Spaihts is an expert world-builder, and the immenseness of his world is only more fascinating due to its almost complete lack of (conscious) humanity. The spacecraft, Excelsior, in which our protagonist Jim is doomed to live out the rest of his days alone is built to comfortably hold and entertain thousands of colonizers on their way to Homestead II, a nascent civilization 120 years away from Earth. Excelsior is essentially the world’s biggest cruise ship, the Titanic times ten, decked out with restaurants, bars, luxury suites, a swimming pool and so on. It is designed to accommodate a class system, one in which Jim is meant to be nothing more than a blue collar drone; ergo, while he’s got the run of the ship, there are still certain meals and activities denied him on account of his lower-class status. It’s a periodically insulting fate, but Jim ably alleviates his boredom by overindulging in drink, video games and, when that becomes old hat, learning (he teaches himself Russian) – all of which distracts him from the void for a solid three months. Still, with his leisure and intellectual appetites sated, it would follow that Jim badly needs to tend to another need.
And this is where Passengers promises to get interesting. Unable to handle the prospect of a monastic existence, Jim begins to ponder the notion of waking up another passenger – a woman. Morally, he knows he cannot do this; it is, in effect, murder. But Jim slowly gives into the temptation. First, he innocently peruses the pods for his ideal woman, intending to do nothing but build a fantasy into which he might escape. But when he finds a beautiful young journalist named Aurora, Jim is smitten, and he only compounds his painful infatuation by looking up her various articles (written for The New Yorker, which places her well out of Jim’s intellectual weight class). Jim sparks to the ideas in Aurora’s essays, but is it really her mind that enchants him? Spaihts cleverly refuses to answer this for the reader, leaving us to wonder if Jim’s gone around the bend.
Ultimately, Jim gives into his loneliness and – after fruitless consultations with the ship’s android barkeep, Arthur – decides to wake up Aurora. It’s here where you wonder if Spaihts is going to nudge his story in a darker direction. What if Aurora doesn’t like Jim? What if she isn’t sexually attracted to him? The fun of reading Passengers is the wide open feeling you get from the narrative as it arrives at each major plot point. To Spaihts’s credit, he entertains the idea of keeping Aurora disinterested in Jim; being the inquisitive type, Aurora is quicker on the uptake than Jim (it doesn’t take her a day to realize something is off) and immediately sets about trying to resolve their dire situation. Aurora is ambitious; she’s about discovery, and, therefore, has no intention of squandering her life idly bopping about a spacecraft ferrying her to a new world. But there is nothing to be done. Any messages sent back to Earth won’t be received for nineteen years; Jim and Aurora are essentially buried alive.
Finally, Spaihts pulls the trigger on the sex (in his defense, if Aurora rebuffed Jim’s advances, he’d have to tread some deeply troubling terrain), and, once again, the potential is far more interesting than the execution. There is a powerful eroticism to this delayed coupling, but Spaihts dispenses with the high-octane fucking in less than two pages. Last Tango in Stasis this clearly is not. This would be excusable, but it’s at this point in the screenplay that Spaihts really starts bending to convention; without giving away too much, another crew member is awakened, and, rather than go The Quiet Earth route, Spaihts writes the character as a benign third wheel. Shit, even in the sexually retarded Red Dawn, there was still the outside chance that Powers Boothe might slip up and fuck Lea Thompson.
But Passengers‘ problems are not insurmountable. For starters, Spaihts is clearly an intelligent guy; he gets the world and the resulting emotional desolation just right. With the right director, I could see Spaihts shaping this screenplay into something far more provocative than it is now, while still honoring the swooning romanticism that guides the story to its heartbreaking conclusion. As it stands, he’s got a very expensive version of Somewhere in Time. The only conceivable way he could get away with the scope and surfeit of locations – which will all be interiors, a fraction of which you could greenscreen, or, if you want to stay practical, re-dress – would be to get a big name director attached. Unfortunately, the big name directors I’d like to see attached – e.g. Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron – would all err on the side of CG. It’s a shame, too, because twenty-five years ago Ridley Scott would’ve nurtured this into a classic.
Generally, I like to devote Crop Reports to movies closer to production, but Passengers is a screenplay I’m desperate to see produced. It presents a unique and very fixable conundrum: Spaihts just needs the freedom to take risks. There’s a classic waiting to happen here.