Uncle Hyena (unclehyena) wrote,
Uncle Hyena

What Would You Steal?

What Would You Steal? - Thoughts on the Ethical Issues in the Movie "Passengers"

First, be warned: Here there be spoilers.

Second, I need to acknowledge at least in passing that the science in this movie is BROKEN. There are indications that someone who knew the score was involved early in the production, but that person was utterly ignored as the production progressed. This matters somewhat because the tech drives the plot which gives birth to the ethical questions, but in the end, it is only the ethical issues which really matter.

Now, the story in brief: The "Avalon" is a robotic sleeper ship carrying more than 5000 persons in cryonic sleep on a 120 year voyage to a colony world. 30 years into the voyage, one of the passengers, Jim, wakes up. (Point of geekery: 30 years is EXACTLY the point of no return for a continuous acceleration vessel, which the "Avalon" is.) He investigates his situation, tries to adapt, and does not so much fail as realize he is failing; he knows that suicide is inevitable if he does not find some company, and he learns how to wake his fellow passengers, individually, from cold sleep. He becomes obsessed with a particular sleeper, Aurora, and agonizes over waking her up. He acknowledges that this would be an evil act, but he is desperate. (An aside: Jim was breaking after 15 months; historically, Alexander Selkirk managed to go 52 months without human contact 300 years ago.)

Eventually, Jim does the evil thing, and wakes Aurora up. He allows her to believe that her sleep pod, like his, malfunctioned. Being healthy, more or less compatible people with no one else for company, they fall in love, and everything goes well until Aurora finds out that Jim woke her deliberately, and stops speaking to him.

Meanwhile, the problem that originally caused Jim to wake up has been gradually cascading through the ship, and reaches a point where the ship will be destroyed if not repaired very quickly. With survival at stake, Aurora is willing to work side by side with Jim. The final repair will require an almost certainly non-survivable action, and Jim takes it on, stating that the lives of the 5000 sleepers are more valuable than his own life. The repair complete, Aurora then risks her own life to rescue and resuscitate Jim.

With the ship restored, Jim discovers a way to put one of them back into cyro sleep, and offers it to Aurora, but she declines. The two re-establish their relationship, and (presumably) die of old age before "Avalon" reaches her destination.

Now... I was intrigued by the trailers for this film, had been looking forward to it, and then encountered a shrill and strident condemnation of it that regarded Jim's behavior as unforgivable, and Aurora's eventual forgiveness of him as absurd. I ALMOST decided against ever seeing the movie, but instead did some more research, and decided I wanted to make my own judgment; I am glad that I did.

Jim did two things that he knew to be fundamentally evil: He woke Aurora up, and then, in support of that, he hid the truth of her awakening from her. The question is not if these acts were fundamentally evil; they were. The question is, were they forgivable? The film clearly states that they were, and I am strongly inclined to agree.

Some perspective is required. What order of crime did Jim actually commit when he awakened Aurora? Kidnapping has been suggested, but that would require ongoing restraint, and that is absent. Jim's crime was theft; a huge, life changing theft, certainly, but ONLY a theft. And it was motivated by Jim's desire to survive, which is hard to fault.

The ongoing deception is of a piece with the first crime. Yes, Jim could have met Aurora as she awakened by saying, "I'm really sorry, but I have done this awful thing to you, but I had to wake up someone or kill myself." This MIGHT have been ethically preferable. On the other hand, the risk of rejection and failure, making the whole process pointless, was a near certainty.

By the time Aurora forgives Jim, she has a clear idea of who he really is: A courageous and fundamentally good man who did a horrible thing under extreme circumstances, a man who ultimately deserves forgiveness.

I am inclined to say that this movie is awful science fiction, pretty good romance, and a damned fine ethics seminar. Except... It has been said (by Alastair Stephens of StoryWonk) that the fundamental nature of science fiction is to manipulate reality for the express purpose of engaging the consumer's intellect. By that standard, in spite of the film's REALLY HORRIBLE science, this movie is some of the best science fiction I have seen in a long time.

Uncle Hyena
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