I liked the idea of Passengers when I first heard about it: On an extra-solar space mission Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence wake up from cryogenic sleep and have to deal with being alone together. It’s like Lost In Translation… in space! And I’m a sucker for a riff on Lost In Translation (Monsters: Lost In Translation… with aliens!). But then I saw the trailer. And look! Explosions! Peril! It’s not just about two people being people with each other.
But then reveals started coming in and it turns out that Pratt’s character wakes up Lawrence’s deliberately: because he’s studied her file and wants to fall in love with her. And he doesn’t tell her the whole waking-her-up-and-ruining-her-plans-without-her-consent-because-he’s-lonely thing and it’s portrayed as, get this, romantic.
So, y’know, my disinterest has now soured to disgust. Woo, another movie where the female character’s agency and goals are subservient to the male character’s want for a warm body.
And it’s all a rotten shame, since the way I first understood the pitch had such promise. How much more isolated can you get than in the middle of space? Lost In Translation used the foreignness of Japan to heighten the isolation of its protagonists – the story wouldn’t work as well in, say, Cleveland. Now replace Tokyo with deep space and you’ve got yourself a whole ‘nother level of existential questioning.
It’s science fiction, and science fiction (and other ‘genre’ stories) is equipped to tell stories that ‘normal’ fiction can’t. Roaming a spaceship meant to house hundreds by yourself isn’t something that could happen in real life (yet), but science fiction can explore that heightened sense of solitude and isolation. Replacing alone in the crowd for a week with alone among the stars while your shipmates sleep for decades allows a story to really look at, say, humanity’s desire for connection and all the drama that comes with it. Fiction is, by nature, a stylized and heightened form of reality; science fiction ratchets that up a few notches.
In addition, the fiction of its world makes its story universal, in that because it hasn’t happened, it could happen to anyone (which doesn’t excuse the lack of diversity sadly prevalent in science fiction). As no one’s blown up a Death Star before, blowing up the Death Star isn’t a ‘white’ narrative. (And because it isn’t a ‘white’ narrative, all the more reason for it to not just feature white actors!) Look at Rogue One. Being a Star Wars story, it takes place in a galaxy far far away free of this one’s messy history with race. So why can’t the rebels be Chinese and Latino? More than ever, is there the leeway for the everyman to not be a white guy, and Rogue One pulls it off magnificently. Suddenly the Rebellion comes alive in a way it never did in the Original Trilogy; there’s room at the space-table for everyone. A story we always hoped was universal really is. You don’t have to look like Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford to be a hero.
With that universality established, now we get to dive back into that heightened reality! It’s the Rebels against the evil Empire! But this is a world where anyone can be a Rebel, and where the Empire really is an unstoppable evil. Compare Rogue One to Saving Private Ryan or Fury, at least in concept. Both Ryan and Fury are World War II movies about Americans against the ostensibly-always-pure-evil Nazi Germany. There are insurmountable odds and crazy missions in all three of the stories, but in Ryan and Fury you’ve gotta be American to see yourself as the hero. Rogue One and Star Wars in general has a leeway you don’t find there.
Even war video games set in contemporary setting have a similar issue, with the Modern Warfare series usually being about American and British soldiers fighting vaguely Russian and Middle-Eastern soldiers/extremists. They’re stories about a certain group of people, during a certain part of time, fighting a certain group of people. Compare that to Halo: Reach which features an international band of soldiers fighting aliens. The villains are drawn in strokes as broad as in Ryan or Modern Warfare, but this time you don’t have to be an American to be the good guy. You get to be Noble Six alongside a team whose voice cast include those of Nigerian, Israeli, Haitian, and South Asian heritage. Anyone can be the hero because the villains aren’t even human. Even though the Halo world may be marked with some shades of gray in its morality, the extreme dichotomy of humanity=good, Covenant=evil lets it be a war story that isn’t reliant on an entire people group being evil.
And again, Rogue One. The Empire isn’t a real country or people group, it’s a fictional villainous government with analogues to real-life regimes. But in Star Wars, the good guys can win, they can really win! Yes, it may come at a cost, but it’s one against an Evil with a capital E. That latitude, for the baddies to be really bad and for the victories to be victorious, let’s a movie like Rogue One have a sense of the epic and hope that just doesn’t happen in reality. There’s a room for the ‘realness’ of realistic fiction, but so is there for the romanticism of science fiction like Star Wars and, yes, Halo.
I love science fiction. Always have. I will vehemently defend it even as I criticize the genre for its faults (ie: being overrun with white guys named John). Same goes for escapist fiction; there’s enough crap going on in the world that some days (a lot of days) I wanna read a book about Han Solo and Lando Calrissian pulling an Oceans Eleven style heist (Timothy Zahn’s Scoundrels is wonderful, by the way). As I say a lot here, there’s a time and place for fiction to be ‘real,’ but sometimes lies about reality can be truer than the truth.
Thanks for sticking with me if you’ve read it this far. This rant started somewhere and ended up somewhere very different, and it’s Christmas Eve and I’m too tired to make it the two essays it should be. So this has been Josh Rambling Aimlessly About Science Fiction. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas everyone, go watch Rogue One instead of Passengers.