TGIF: March 31, 2017 – On Contemptible Passengers

Despite what you may have heard, lawyers are, in fact, human beings with interests and hobbies all their own. They are not, I repeat not, robots sent from the future solely for the purpose of billing hours, drafting documents, and negotiating terms.  Not all of them anyway.  

In TGIF, I touch on some of my own interests primarily through the lens of the “Rules of the Game”, focusing on the rules and incentives that ultimately affect all of us in pursuing our life’s endeavors. I may even crack a joke or two.  Hard to say.

TGIF will be published regularly on (surprisingly enough) Friday mornings. For more information, check out www.hoeglaw.com or drop Rick a line at rhoeg@hoeglaw.com.

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Passengers Fails to Balance the Cold Equations

There is very little I love more in the world of pop culture than genre fiction.  Whether it’s ice zombies, robot cowboys, or, I guess, anything else on HBO, I’ve always been fascinated by both fantasy and science fiction.  About considering the impossibilities of magic and mystery against the inevitabilities of technology and change.  It is against this backdrop that I came to watch Passengers, the Chris Pratt/Jennifer Lawrence vehicle released in theaters about three months ago.  To say I was not impressed would be disrespectful to the concept of being impressed.  I was livid.  Let’s talk about why.

Spoilers for three month old movie to follow.

(Side note: As a lawyer, husband, and father of two young girls, I don’t get out to the theater quite as often as I once did.  Though I still enjoy my fair share of films and TV, it tends to be a bit after the rest of the world (or at least zeitgeist) has moved on.  All of my commentary could thus be described in Internetese as “Late to the Party”, but, hey, at least now we can talk spoilers, right?)

As this blog is called “Rules of the Game” I want to first talk a bit about the “rules” of narrative. Unlike science or math, narrative does not necessarily have hard and fast laws that must be followed, but it does have certain aspects, guidelines if you will, that a story writer (or filmmaker) is well advised to follow in order to leave his or her audience with a good taste in their mouths after the experience.  One of the primary of these is the concept of moral calculus.

The concept is simple and intuitive.  In a perfect world, if a character does something good, especially against all odds or an easy alternative, they should be rewarded.  If they are not, if they lose the love of their life, say, or are killed unceremoniously, it should be treated as a tragedy; a loss felt by the audience. On the other hand, if a character does something bad, they should be punished.  If they instead get all they desire or ascend to godhood or what have you, that in and of itself is a kind of tragedy.  The audience should feel it is a “bad” (unjustified) ending.

That does not mean that such a character cannot be redeemed.  Indeed, one of the most compelling narrative structures is the “redemption arc”, in which a formerly “bad” character makes good, perhaps at great cost.  But it does mean that such a character cannot receive riches and rewards with an expectation that the audience is cheering for them all the way.  If they do, it is a different kind of tragedy.

Passengers is that different kind of tragedy.

In Passengers, lovable human-sized teddy bear Chris Pratt (whose character I will refer to as “Chris”) is awakened from cryosleep one decade in to a century’s long journey to his new home.  Though left with full control over his Carnival cruiseliner to the stars, he is unable to return to stasis and knows he will live the entirety of his life alone before ever seeing his new home.  Understandably, he becomes unfathomably lonely.  Equally understandably, he begins to obsess over the still-in-stasis Jennifer Lawrence (“Jennifer”) and how just a bit of human companionship might ease his suffering.  He makes the ultimate decision with full understanding of the consequences.  He wakes her, dooming her to live the entire remainder of her life with him.

To this point, Passengers is an exceptional short story, with exactly the correct amount of “What would you do?” mixed in with our empathy for Chris’ plight.  Unfortunately, “this point” is 15 minutes in.

After awaking Jennifer, Passengers becomes a bit of a romantic comedy.  Giggles, dancing, and sexy fun times ensue, which itself is a bit off-putting as Chris has effectively engaged in a form of fraud here.  He never tells Jennifer that he woke her, instead allowing her to believe that they were both victims of the same accident.  We wait for the inevitable.  Then the inevitable happens.

Jennifer discovers what Chris did, and the movie lurches into about 20 minutes of Fatal Attraction style stalker vibes.  Jennifer beating Chris and threatening him with a crowbar. Chris taking over the ship’s sound system so that Jennifer has to listen to him and there is no place for her to run (helpfully highlighted by Jennifer actually running through the scene, thanks director!).  Tears, wailing, and general gnashing of teeth.  It looks like Chris might actually be the villain of the piece.  But then, no.

You see, amidst all the drama occurring elsewhere, the ship itself has been falling apart from the impacts that originally woke Chris out of cryostasis.  After a brief exposition dump from Morpheus himself (who then promptly dies, Sean Bean style, to let our heroes’ journey continue), Chris and Jennifer must toss their differences aside and band together to save the ship.  It is here where so very much with the movie goes wrong.

Chris has committed a horrible, unforgivable sin  He knows this.  The movie (to its credit) knows this.  That is the point of the first two acts.  He compounds this sin by hiding the truth, being his own charming self, and having his way with the woman he victimized.  The calculus demands that his comeuppance be large if the audience is to think at all fondly about his journey.  These are not my rules.  These aren’t even the rules of book publishers or film producers.  These are the rules of human nature.  The Cold Equations.

In this type of movie, the need for such atonement usually means only one thing: self-sacrifice. And lo!  Chris must manually hold the reactor door open so that the fizzbar particles can correctly amplify the progenitor cube…or you know, whatever.  One can see the movie taking shape.  Chris will die, saving the ship and Jennifer (who would have died had two folks not been awake at the same time) in the process, and he will have atoned for his sins.  Maybe in not the most remarkable movie in the world, but in one that would be moderately satisfying. Toss in the fact that Jennifer would then be faced with Chris’s same crippling loneliness and moral quandary as was the case in the beginning of the movie, and you might even wind up with a tight little philosophical yarn.  A big budget Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode.  Alas, in modern Hollywood it was not to be.

No, in the year of our lord 2016 Hollywood deemed Chris Pratt just too darned lovable to kill. Realizing that she was wrong to be so mad at Chris for only murdering and raping her (in that order), Jennifer throws herself fully onto the pyres of “love” to use all extraordinary means to save her muscled beau.  What causes Jennifer to go from doe-eyed, to disgusted rape victim, back to doe-eyed?  Presumably simply Chris Pratt’s abs and the “implication” of unending loneliness.  Not a character arc that is easy to look back on with much fondness.

The movie gives one more pass at potentially allowing Chris to atone, giving Jennifer the opportunity to reenter cryostasis for the remainder of the journey.  Instead she elects to stay with Chris, tacitly giving the audience permission to forgive him as well.  The film ends with voiceover from Jennifer describing the beautiful life they lived together until the end of their days.

Were this all treated as some kind of “bad” ending, with an acknowledgement that Chris doesn’t deserve any of this, and that the audience shouldn’t feel good about this outcome, it would be one thing.  Filmmakers and storytellers the world over have made excellent and compelling stories about going against moral calculus.  Or if there were actually some debate over whether the actions committed by Chris were so bad, it would be another. (Jennifer’s electing to stay with Chris at the end is actually an attempt to effect this side of the equation. Too little, too late.)  But instead, the ending is treated as the end of a hero’s journey, with Starlord himself getting the girl and everything he ever wanted at effectively no cost.

Follow that kids?  That pretty girl you like so much?  It’s okay to obsess over her, trap her, and sleep with her on false premises.  It’s okay to stalk her and invade her privacy.  She’ll come around.  She just hasn’t realized yet how cute and adorable you are.  Or that she doesn’t have any other options.  Passengers.  Fun for the whole family.

If only there were a word for how I feel about that.

Word of the Week – Contemptible

Worthy of contempt or disdain

“Though the actions of our hero were contemptible, surely the ends justified the means.”

Because if they didn’t, surely a studio wouldn’t spend $100M bringing them to life.  That would be contemptible.

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Thanks for stopping by.  Feel free to leave me a comment down below, and be sure to check out the rest of Rules of the Game and www.hoeglaw.com for more legal insights, commentary, and helpful articles.  Have a great Friday everybody!

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