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‘Passengers’: Futuristic, but the same old fairy tale

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A lot of feminists hate Morten Tyldum’s “Passengers,” and for good reasons. Though it’s set in a bright, high-tech future where luxury space travel is the norm, where women are concerned the story’s underlying sentiments hail straight from the Middle Ages. On the other hand, just as many other filmgoers may love “Passengers.” If you can get past the gender politics, it’s easy to get caught up in this desperately romantic tale of two very attractive people.

My guess is that the Japanese will go for “Passengers” in a big way because at the core of the story is a goofy engineer who gets the beautiful girl, something that the Japanese (especially Japanese engineers) are conditioned to think never happens — not even in the movies. Engineers just don’t get gorgeous girls. They work too hard and too long, they never make a lot of money and they’re considered not particularly articulate about, or even interested in, things that aren’t in their field of expertise.

Chris Pratt’s character Jim Preston fits this bill perfectly, but he’s also sneaky and manipulative. Jim employs extremely reprehensible means to get the girl, Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), who is asleep and helpless in a state of stasis when he first sees her. Aurora, by the way, is the name of the princess in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” From a feminist perspective, Jim’s actions and this name choice (“Sleeping Beauty” is not exactly a politically correct tale) is just asking for a major backlash.

And yet “Passengers” still manages to woo us with the kind of intense love and obsession you don’t see often, especially in the world of sci-fi. And some of us tend to be suckers for stuff that has a whiff of “true love.” Despite its faults, “Passengers” is permeated with this — even if it’s derived from Jim’s loneliness, longing and then deception. Ultimately, he’s portrayed as wanting to prove his worth and both impress and win the love of Aurora. If someone figures out how to distill a musk to inspire that kind of devotion, let me know, because I’ll come running.

It all unfolds on the Starship Avalon. Space travel and living away from Earth has become almost as familiar as emigrating to another country. Some 5,300 passengers are traveling to a distant planet colony known as Homestead II to start life afresh. To do this they must spend 120 years in stasis sleeping in pods. A meteor collision, however, sparks a glitch in the pod software and Jim finds himself blinking awake 90 years too early.

With no way of getting the pod to work again (he tries every means at his disposal), he finds himself staring at an abyss of solitary confinement. The only good news is that he can get fresh sushi at Avalon’s designer restaurant and has the company of an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen), who pours drinks and says all the right things but is otherwise limited.

A year of solitude leaves Jim ready to end his life, but then he stumbles across the pod of Aurora. After logging into her records and learning that she’s a writer and journalist, reading her work and obsessively watching videos of her, he falls in love and struggles with the idea of waking her. Then, eventually, he can’t help himself, and he tampers with her hibernation system.

According to production notes lore, “Passengers” had been on the “Blacklist” — Hollywood’s annual list of best and most likeable scripts yet to be adapted. That was in 2007. A lot has happened in the world since then, though a mere decade seems impossibly short compared to the 1.2-century journey the passengers must experience before they can take up their lives again.

A vast reach of time passes on the Starship Avalon but the essence of Jim and Aurora’s relationship, regardless of how it was initiated, remains intact. Eventually the passengers wake up. What they witness is so wondrous even the most skeptical of viewers may be moved to forgive all the bad stuff and rejoice in the power of the human bond.