Last week, in a snazzy London office, a group of journalists gathered in a pristine white meeting room to chat about Jon Spaihts and Morten Tyldum’s 2016 sci-fi flick Passengers.
The movie stars Chris Pratt as a mechanic and Jennifer Lawrence as a writer, both of whom signed up for a 120 year voyage across the stars, in a colony ship named the Avalon. They’re supposed to spend the journey in hibernation pods and help build a new society upon reaching their destination, a planet dubbed Homestead II. But here’s the rub: they wake up 90 years too soon.
They’re left to explore the ship, which holds 4,998 other colonists and 258 crewmembers, none of whom are awake. Instead, an android barman named Arthur (played by Michael Sheen) and an array of other technological wonders keep the ship going without the need for humans.
It was this robotic aspect of the film that we gathered in London to talk about, and a representative from RobotFun.co.uk had been brought in to teach us a few things…
The robot man led us in a workshop, teaching us about these little things called Ozobots (which are from real life, not the film). Essentially, they respond to colours and patterns, which you can draw using special felt tip pens. We had a bit of fun with this, making the robots move around the table, light up and perform little tricks, all based on what we drew with the pens. It’s all basic coding, really.
RobotFun.co.uk normally do their workshops for kids, but us journos found it all quite interesting. An enjoyable hour and a half was had. I was impressed that something as simple as a few coloured dots could equate to quite complicated coding: if the Ozobot rolls over a green dot followed by a black dot followed by a red dot, for example, it will understand that you want it to turn left at the next junction it reaches.
I went home with a copy of Passengers on Blu-ray, and I decided to stick it on the following evening. I’d seen the film before, but with coding and robots still at the front of my mind, I saw it a bit differently this time around. (Also, there are some decent deleted scenes and special features.)
Anyone who’s seen the film, or its trailers, will remember that Michael Sheen’s Arthur threatens to steal the show at points. It’s a marvellous performance and a well-written character. If we had to pick a movie robot to be stranded in space with, this cocktail-concocting expert and wisdom dispenser would probably be quite high on the list…
But when you’re watching the film with coding and robots on your mind, you realise that Arthur has the same problem as everything else on this ship: there’s no programming in his head to deal with the possibility of a pod malfunctioning and a passenger waking up at the wrong time. He can clearly see that Pratt and Lawrence have woken up, but he has no response to that programmed into his system. He just keeps making them drinks.
Pratt spends a large chunk of the film as the only conscious human on the Avalon, and it quickly becomes obvious that the Homestead Company (who built the ship and planned the journey) have installed a grand total of zero contingency plans to resolve a situation like this.
There’s a lot of artificial intelligence on the ship, including Arthur, a number of robot waiters, several information interface thingies, and some cleaning machines that look like the skutters from Red Dwarf. But none of them have a clue what to do in the face of a passenger being awake at the wrong time.
There’s no apparent way to put someone back into hibernation, and no coding that send an effective distress call, wake up the crew or do anything truly useful in this situation. The likelihood of a passenger waking up early was apparently so slim that no resolution to that problem was written into the system.
Pratt and Lawrence will both die of old age before the Avalon reaches its destination. And when they try to seek help from the robots and computer programmes on the ship, they’re met with a brick wall.
Nothing on the ship has been coded to predict or comprehend this issue, and therefore nothing on the ship is capable of finding a solution.
In a sense, this is Asking Siri A Question It Doesn’t Understand: The Movie, with Pratt’s Jim and Lawrence’s Aurora utterly let down by the technology that surrounds them. Arthur can make them a cocktail, the skutters can clean up cornflakes and there’s a fairly impressive coffee machine in the cafeteria, but there’s nothing on board that can process and troubleshoot the small matter that a) they’ve woken up, and b) they’ll both die before anyone can help.
The Homestead Company’s engineers are the real villains of the piece, then, with their corporate hubris essentially adding up to this: there’s never been a problem with a hibernation pod before, so why would we bother planning for one? I know one thing for sure: RobotFun.co.uk would never let that happen.
Passengers is available on digital download, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray & DVD now.