PASSENGERS by Jon Spaihts
Director: Gabriele Muccino in talks
Starring: Keanu Reeves
Producers: Keanu Reeves, Stephen Hamel, James Robinson
Production company: Morgan Creek
Status: still unclear. According to reports in April, Rick Nicita, Morgan Creek’s newish head, was close to greenlighting the project.
Jon Spaihts is one of my favorite writers working today. He’s the hot sci-fi guy right now, and when you read him, it’s easy to see why. His scripts are well-constructed, tight, brisk, and they focus as much on character as concept. I read “Passengers” along with everyone else back in 2007 but it wasn’t until “The Darkest Hour,” a script he did a page-one rewrite on for Timur Bekmambetov that I sat up and took notice just how fantastic he is. Had I the script for “The Darkest Hour,” I’d write about that one, but I don’t, so “Passengers” it is.
I know “Passengers” has been around for awhile and many people have read it and lots have talked about how great it is, but, well, I don’t think it hurts to laud it more. It was third on the Blacklist a couple years ago and it’s been generally easy to find on the internet ever since. Spaihts wrote a sci-fi script that had Keanu Reeves attached called Sector 19, but the project fell apart and Keanu hired him on his stranded-in-space idea, which became Passengers.
No more script links, folks.
SUBJECT: Passengers by Spaihts
I’ve found the script. You always say you want to make big-idea movies with great characters, and that’s exactly what Passengers is.
It’s the story of Jim, a guy who accidentally wakes up from hibernation 30 years into a 150 year journey on a colony ship to a new world. He’s alone on a massive ship and he’ll die of old age long before he reaches his destination. His only companions are the retinue of robots who prowl the place, cleaning, cooking, and keeping up the starship as it hurtles towards the colony planet Homestead II. Android Arthur is the only robot Jim can actually carry on a conversation with, but even though the bartender-robot is friendly and programmed well enough to talk to, it’s no substitution for an actual person. After a year of lonely isolation, he wakes up a woman, Aurora, so he’ll have a companion. After consternation and then acceptance, they fall in love, but she doesn’t know that she woke from hibernation because of him. When Arthur tells her the truth, she’s furious and Jim’s world comes crashing down. Now they’re the only two people in their world and they’ve broken up. Can you imagine if the only other person in your world were your ex-wife?
That chilly détente takes us to the end of the second act, when Gus wakes up by accident. He’s an officer on the ship, and he’s been on five colony trips just like this one, but he’s in declining health and so when he realizes that the ship’s systems are in drastic decline, he doesn’t have time to fix things. After he dies, Jim and Aurora are left to figure out exactly what’s wrong and save the ship. The final sequence is great stuff, an action sequence that ends in elegy. That sort of dichotomy is what makes the script work – it’s 2001 but instead of orchestral space ballet and a homicidal AI, it’s the loneliness of space and a man and a woman. 2001 is about the relationship humanity has with machines and the future. Passengers is about the relationship people have with each other and themselves.
Jim is a great role. I’ve always thought Keanu Reeves has gotten a bum rap – the guy’s got a sense of humor and there are moments even in movies like The Matrix where he finds some honesty in his acting even amid all the wild stuff. Thing is, he’s been making some wacky choices and hasn’t found roles that push him much. He was good in “Something’s Gotta Give” and I loved him in “Feeling Minnesota.” I also might be the only one who appreciated “A Scanner Darkly.” This is the kind of role he can eat up. He’s got detached loneliness in him, and that’s just what this role calls for. The first thirty pages of the script is a little like “Castaway,” with Jim becoming more and more divorced from reality. That moment when Jim decides to wake up Aurora in a fit of desolate isolation has so much to it and the script makes us understand why he does it.
The relationship between Jim and Aurora forms the core of the script, as it should. It’s their conflict that serves as the engine here. The script pulls off a neat trick, turning what could’ve been a crazy sci-fi horror or thriller, like “Pandorum” or “Sunshine,” into nothing more than a relationship drama. It’ll take some cagey marketing to pull in the right audience, though. “The Fountain” and “Solaris” weren’t exactly slam dunks at the box office. This script isn’t as arch or resolutely obscure as those. This is direct, straightforward storytelling that doesn’t try to show off and isn’t afraid to get our blood pressure up a bit.
Aurora has lots of casting potential. Amy Adams jumps to mind, or Rachel McAdams. Thing is, she’s gotta be a good actor, and we have to believe that she’s a journalist willing to leave behind everything to go on this journey to the colony planet and back again. That requires some complicated psychology.
There are a few areas I’d like to work on. I think the script should explore more just what made Aurora and Jim leave everything on Earth behind. I’d like to see the first act be a bit shorter, and I’d love it if there were more time between Aurora and Jim breaking up and Gus showing up. Aurora should probably be more angry and depressed when she wakes, and I’d love to accentuate the break-up and subsequent relationship dissolution between Jim and Aurora. That material could be turned up to 11. Gus also seems to get short shrift – he’s gone almost as soon as he shows up, and I question the convenience of his terminal disease. The one big change I’d like to explore involves Aurora’s emergence from hibernation. As written, we see Jim do it. This idea might not work, but I’d love it if we didn’t know whether or not Jim woke her from hibernation and then we found out at the same time she did.
I think we can do this for a price even if it might not be the easiest sell in the marketplace. I’ve attached the script and I’m sure we’ll talk when you get back from Necker Island. Say hi to Richard for me.