Normally on Science Vs. Cinema, James and I produce a full scripted half-hour episode where we talk to the filmmakers and scientists who either worked on a film or do similar science. This takes at least a month though. Due to scheduling constraints, James and I decided to just do a quick Science Vs. Cinema short on it rather than a full episode. This one is just me talking off the top of my head after seeing the film, and James editing it for a few hours. So there is a certain spontaneity to it that is nice, but if this is your first introduction to Science Vs. Cinema, watch our full episodes on THE MARTIAN or ARRIVAL.
The column below came after a bit more deliberation and calculation, so is more thorough. I try to keep the spoilers to what is revealed in the trailers, or what happens early in the movie, until the end of the article, where I warn you. There are spoilers in the video though, so you may want to wait to watch it until after you’ve seen the movie. I’d skip the movie and just watch the short though — it will save you $10 and two hours! Here’s the video:
Longtime fans of this column know that I have a basic credo when it comes to science in movies: “You can bend the rules to tell a better story, but it had better be well justified, and don’t get unnecessary things wrong.” In short, don’t be a dumbass. Don’t make the kind of movie that the more you know, the less you like the movie. Sadly, PASSENGERS fails my test spectacularly. The movie is filled with science defying bullshit for no good reason. And beyond that, the writing is bad — developments happen for no other reason than that they needed to happen that way in the script.
The setup is that there are 5000 passengers and 200+ crew going on a 120 year journey to colonize a planet named HOMESTEAD II. They are supposed to be in hibernation until the last few months, but one passenger, played by Chris Pratt, wakes up early due to a malfunction. Eventually a second passenger, played by Jennifer Lawrence, wakes up too. The duo are facing 90 years together, alone the ship.
IF IT AIN”T BAROQUE, DON'T FIX IT
This ship is the opposite of everything we’ve seen in modern Earth spaceships. While the spacecraft we know are small, light, cramped affairs designed by engineers, the vessel in PASSENGERS is the space equivalent of a cruise ship, complete with a swimming pool, bar, luxury suites, shopping and restaurants. Of course the reason spacecraft have to be so light is that it takes a lot of energy to launch someone into space. That means taking a lot of fuel, which is heavy, and requires more fuel.
We’ve built bigger facilities for longer stays — I’ve been in NASA’s mockup of the International Space Station, and it is as long as a football field, complete with different modules and even little closet-sized bedrooms. That’s a special case though — the ISS can afford to be a little bigger because it doesn’t go anywhere. Once you’ve launched the pieces, it doesn’t cost any extra energy to orbit the Earth, aside from a tiny bit for occasionally dodging space debris or lifting it higher after the tenuous upper atmosphere drags it down.
If you want to accelerate a ship, everything changes. Now you have to pay energy, and if you want to accelerate it to 50% of the speed of light, the cruising speed in the film, you have to pay an enormous amount of energy. Assuming this ship has about the mass of a cruise liner on Earth, you have to generate as much energy as the sun puts out in a few seconds, integrated over its whole surface, over all wavelengths of light. That’s a lot!
The energy source in the film seems to be a fusion reactor, the second, the most efficient energy source outside of matter/antimatter reactions. Even so, given the size of the fusion reactor shown in the film, it isn’t nearly enough.
Since being on a luxury liner is essential to the plot, and the filmmakers sort of dodged the implausibility by using an advanced fuel source, I’ll reluctantly give them a pass on this. I still wish they had just made the ship smaller, less extravagant, and used an antimatter reactor.
The ship generates artificial gravity by spinning. This trick used by decades of science fiction authors is on solid ground. I reviewed the physics of it in my Science Vs. Cinema article and video on THE MARTIAN, so I won’t repeat it here. The twist is that in PASSENGERS, the part of the ship with gravity isn’t a ring, it is a discontinuous helix. The helix part is fine — this will still generate artificial gravity. But why break it into sections? You could say that it contains your losses in the case of catastrophic failure. That’s fine, but airlocks between sections would do the same thing. The problem with the discontinuous helix is that people need to take zero-g elevators to get between sections, and elevator are very failure prone. Imagine one lasting for 120 years! The design principle for space travel is to minimize moving parts and keep things simple wherever you can. The real reason for the discontinuous helix here is because it “looks cool” and so that there can be some elevator scenes. To me the drawbacks of the idea aren’t worth it for so little gain.
There is a scene where Jennifer Lawrence is swimming in a pool and gravity fails, causing the water to form a ball and rise out of the pool. Then gravity just switches back on suddenly, causing the water all to splash down. It wouldn’t work like this! In space, since there is not air resistance, once you start something rotating, it will keep rotating until you actively stop it. Imagine having a cruise ship worth of mass on a giant arm swinging around. Even if you fired some rockets to stop the rotation, it would take forever to slow it to a stop. During that time gravity would gradually decrease. The same thing goes for starting it back up. So everyone on the ship should have had plenty of time to realize something was going on with the gravity.
Yes, it is true that water in space tends to cling to itself from surface tension, and form a sphere. However, it also clings to other stuff, like walls or astronaut’s faces. If you shut off gravity, this giant mass of water would stay clinging to the inside of the swimming pool, at least for a while, rather than just magically levitating. It takes energy to lift that much water. Remember Newton’s First Law: things at rest tend to stay at rest.
I get wanting to have a cool movie visual like that. Fine, just say they have some future tech to generate gravity. Don’t try to do it on a rotating ship!
A KICK IN THE ASTEROIDS
The thing that breaks the ship is revealed in the first scene — it hit some asteroids. There are so many problems with this. First, you don’t just run across random asteroids in space — they are only around stars. At this point the ship is around 15 lightyears out, and we know about all stars that far away — you can’t accidentally hit one. Haven’t they made this trip before? Second, even in an asteroid belt the density of asteroids is very low — not like we see on screen. If you are standing on an asteroid in the asteroid belt, you can’t even see another asteroid. The chances of hitting an asteroid accidentally are astronomically low — we regularly send probes through the asteroid belt all the time without hitting one, and we’re aiming right at it.
But the real kicker is the energies involved. The ship is running into the asteroid at half the speed of light. Even a tiny asteroid, say one with only the mass of a person (100 kg), would generate an explosion of 1018 Joules. That’s equivalent to twenty times the energy of the most powerful nuclear weapons ever tested by the US. It wouldn’t just knock out a system here or make a little hole — the whole ship would have been vaporized.
Also, I don’t buy the fact that all this goes undetected by the ship’s software for so long. Our heroes just stumble upon a giant hole in the ship when they open a door into the vacuum of space. If big parts of the ship are failing, surely this thing that can automate bartending and breakfast has a diagnostic for that, and a contingency plan that includes waking the crew.
I get it that you need an inciting incident here. Just make it a plausible one. A computer glitch or factory defect would have been fine.
ARC TO ARCTURUS
For no good reason, the ship makes a “slingshot” maneuver around Arcturus, and happens to make an announcement to everyone on board to go to the window and look, even though they are all supposed to be asleep. At this point, they have been on the ship for 30 years or so, so they are about 15 lightyears away from Earth. The problem is that Arcturus is 36 lightyears away, so they wouldn’t have reached it yet. Why name the star the wrong thing? Just pick one at the right distance!
But it is worse than that — slingshotting around stars won’t help you. They got this idea from the fact that probes in our solar system often slingshot around other planets, like Jupiter, to pick up speed. But that speed comes from the angular momentum of Jupiter orbiting the Sun, not from Jupiter’s gravity. Stars are orbiting the center of the galaxy, but there is no appreciable difference between the speed of Arcturus and the Sun, so that doesn’t help you. And if you are going half the speed of light already, whizzing near a star won’t even change your course all that much. Think about photons from background stars passing near the Sun. Their positions are deflected slightly from the mass of the Sun, as was determined in measurements taken during the solar eclipse of 1919, which confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity. Even though photons those photons were very close to the Sun, they were barely deflected.
CHRIS PRATT PHONE HOME
There’s a scene where Chris Pratt sits down to make a call back to Earth. He records his message, but after he sends it, he’s surprised to find out that it will take 19 years to reach Earth. This is such a dumb scene, and it epitomizes everything wrong with the movie. First, every passenger knows they are traveling lightyears away. Nobody would be stupid to take such a trip without knowing the stakes. Later, they even establish the fact that he knew this before he left, *and* that he’s a super-smart engineer. They put in this phone call scene just for a cheap laugh, even though it makes no sense and undermines the character and plausibility of the story.
Ok, so you wake up 90 years too early. This ship is programmed to turn everything on when it detects a person running around, but doesn’t have basic checks to understand that this should not happen. You burn all the lights on this whole ship, keep a massive atmosphere warm, run the air scrubbers, run the fountains, fill the pool, just for one guy? These things weren’t designed to run for 90 years, they were designed to run for only a few months at the end. All his screwing around could doom everyone.
In the case of a catastrophic failure, the crew isn’t designed to be woken up? Even worse, they are placed behind vault-like doors only openable with an electronic key. If that reader fails, is everyone doomed?
A key point here is that the ship doesn’t have the equipment to put people back into hibernation. Why would it have a swimming pool and not that very critical piece of infrastructure? They say there are duplicate parts for everything, except of course the one critical piece of infrastructure they need.
When characters make decisions and plot developments happen that make no sense, but have to happen that way to further the story, we have a phrase for this — bad writing.
PRATT EX MACHINA
Now I’m going to spoil some plot twists, so skip to the conclusion if you don’t want to know.
Chris Pratt’s character does something pretty unconscionable — he wakes up Jennifer Lawrence’s character early because he thinks she is pretty and he is lonely. This effectively dooms her to live out her life with only him, because there’s no way she can go back into hibernation. He doesn’t tell her the truth, and sleeps with her. She eventually finds out, of course, and wants nothing to do with him. That isn’t quite rape and it isn’t quite murder, but it is a whole new level of science fiction violation that we don’t even have on this planet — kind of like being kidnapped and held against your will for life.
This could have been an interesting moral dilemma — he had to chose to rob someone of their future and manipulate them to please himself. And then she had to choose whether or not she could forgive the only other person she would ever see in her life. However, any moral complexity is washed away when the ship starts failing, and Chris Pratt just happens to be an engineer who knows how to fix everything. So see, it was all ok in the end, because he saved the ship. Maybe he screwed over one person, but he saved more than 5000, so all is forgiven. The resolution to this moral quandary is just that the asteroid-induced-failures got lucky and woke up exactly the right guy!
The coincidences don’t stop there. The critical ship failures happen more than year after the initial accident, just because that’s when it script calls for it. And they waited until a crew member played by Laurence Fishburne wakes up for no other reason than to give some critical exposition, then dies when the script calls for it again.
PASSENGERS had an intriguing concept, but failed to deliver on the promise of it. Character decisions and plot developments feel artificial and unearned. Nothing about this universe feels authentic. I don’t know how much of this is due to the writer, Jon Spaihts, whose worked I liked on DOCTOR STRANGE, but didn’t care for on PROMETHEUS. I’m sure some blame is due to the director, Morten Tyldum, which is a shame because I liked his work in THE IMITATION GAME. In the end, if either had talked more scientists, I think the movie would have been a hell of a lot better. The failures could have been avoided. And this is a case where I think having a big budget hurt the film. The could have made a very interesting movie if the leads had been a bit less perfect looking, if they didn’t have enough money to overdesign the ship, or they didn’t have studio pressure to have a certain type of ending.