Passengers May 23, 2018

I watched the movie Passengers quite some time ago, and regret having taken so long to blog about it. The movie surprised me with its ethical depth, as well as its impressive special effects.

Why do I say that the story is ethically profound? Because it forces us to ask questions about motives and circumstances, about actions, intentions, and consequences.

The ethical issue at the heart of the story can be summed up very briefly in terms of the concrete details of the film, but involves a major spoiler, and so I feel I should offer a warning even though the film has been out for a while now. Having issued a spoiler warning, I may now continue. In short, if the main protagonist had not woken another passenger from suspended animation prematurely, everyone on board – including the two of them – would have died. But the background is that this one individual was awoken by an initial accident and as a result, found himself as the sole person awake on a ship traveling to another world, almost a century before it was due to arrive. And so his prospect, if he were not to take his own life, was to live out a solitary existence and eventually die alone on the journey. In his desperation for companionship, he started finding out about and then talking to another passenger still in suspended animation – and then, he woke her from suspended animation, condemning her to share his fate and preventing her from ever reaching the planet they were headed for (which in the film is named “Homestead II”).

The key question is whether it is appropriate to excuse unethical behavior simply because the result turned out not only to not be too bad, but to be downright advantageous to all parties. This is not an abstract question in the film: if the two of them had not been awake – and it had to be two – a crisis that would have destroyed the ship would not have been averted. In other words, they both would have died in space either way. This way, they both would end up dying before reaching the planet, but the other passengers could be saved.

There are other questions besides this central one, which should not be ignored. The story is one of a man grievously violating a woman’s autonomy. Indeed, one can frame the matter in terms of consent, with being in suspended animation akin to her being drunk or otherwise incapacitated and unable to consent under the circumstances. And so the central moral question should be asked not in the abstract, nor only in the concrete terms of the outcomes that result, but also in terms of consent, dishonesty, and the relationship that evolves between the two characters. Or in other words, we should read it through a #MeToo lens.

What are your views of the movie’s explorations of these ethical questions, and of the underlying questions themselves?

Of related interest, see the article in Discover magazine about the ship itself and its robot bartender. See too the article in Aeon about what is in essence the same question as the one we have been exploring here: whether our luck with respect to whether our misdeeds have bad consequences has any bearing on the morality or otherwise of our actions.


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  • John MacDonald

    It’s questionable since the one he chose to wake up was as beautiful as Jennifer Lawrence, and he didn’t tell her the real reason behind her waking up.