Why “Passengers” Failed

“Passengers” is the latest example of a disappointing movie. While it can be inspiring to watch great movies, it can also be educational to watch failed movies as well to analyze exactly what went wrong. By identifying what went wrong with bad movies, you can avoid making the same mistakes in your own screenplays.

Before it arrived in theaters, “Passengers” was actually an exciting movie that was predicted to be a major science fiction hit. When it finally arrived in theaters, it turned out to be a major dud. “Passengers” fails on so many levels but one way it did succeed was creating an interesting premise. By watching the trailer, you can learn that the major premise is that two people wake up too early in a starship heading to a distant planet. Now the big question is what will they do?

The premise captured everyone’s imagination, but the actual movie disappoints. First of all, the trailer promises that two people will wake up in an empty starship. (If you haven’t seen “Passengers” yet, stop reading now to avoid spoilers.)

“Passengers” appears to be about two people who wake up too early, but it’s really about one man who wakes up too early. That by itself isn’t a problem, but it does change expectations. That would be like watching a trailer of a war movie only to find out that the actual movie is about a film director making a war movie. The promise of any movie needs to be delivered. The surprise doesn’t come from changing the promise of the movie, but by changing the way that promise is delivered, and “Passengers” fails miserably by making us expect that two people wake up too early, only to find out that only one does.

Then the first 30 minutes of “Passengers” dwells on this one man trying to decide how to survive on his own. This first 30 minutes is dull because there’s no conflict. Instead, the man spends his time exploring the starship, which is about as exciting as watching someone explore a shopping mall for the first time.

Now the twist comes when the man decides to wake up a beautiful woman prematurely so he’ll have company. This dilemma means he’ll have company but he’ll also be robbing her of her own future. This is an interesting dilemma that never gets fully explored so it’s wasted. Instead, the hero now makes a choice to wreck another person’s life for his own happiness. When the woman finds out, she’s horrified, which makes the hero far less likable and sympathetic. When your hero becomes someone the audience doesn’t like, you risk losing the audience completely.

Rather than explore this dilemma further, “Passengers” simply introduces a new problem where the starship is damaged and slowly falling apart. Suddenly a new character appears to help the hero understand this problem. By popping up so late, this new character appears long enough to die but does not appear early enough for us to care about him. As a result, he’s more of a convenient plot device than an interesting character we care about. Because we don’t care about this character, his whole time on screen is wasted since he serves little purpose than to help the hero and the woman realize that the entire starship is in danger.

Now the hero must fix the broken reactor that’s threatening to blow up. Yet this final conflict involves no battle other than overcoming a physical obstacle. Movies work best when the final battle becomes a life or death struggle between two people where one will win and live and the other will lose and die. In “Passengers,” the hero risks living or dying but the reactor does not. The reactor has no feelings or goals, so when the hero succeeds in saving the reactor and preventing an explosion, the resolution is no more exciting than watching a child pick up a dropped toy. There’s no sense of accomplishment or victory.

When tennis players win a major championship, it’s because they defeated another person so we get to see the thrill of victory on one person’s face and see the agony of defeat in the other person’s face. Nobody would want to watch a tennis player hit a ball against a wall and then jump for joy in celebration by defeating a wall. In “Passengers,” we only get to see the hero’s victory but we don’t get to see any sign of defeat because a reactor is an inanimate object that displays no emotion whatsoever. The animated cars in “Cars” or the animated toys in “Toy Story” are far more interesting because they express human emotions, but the reactor in “Passengers” is just a chunk of machinery so it can feel no sense of victory or defeat.

“Passengers” fails because it’s simply a boring story that creates an unlikable hero who fights a boring climactic battle. Here’s a better way to make “Passengers” stronger.

First of all, “Passengers” lacks a villain. Second, the hero doesn’t change. Third, there’s no mentor to help the hero change.

So one way to make “Passengers” better is to create a human villain. Rather than have the hero go through the dubious action of waking someone up prematurely for his own selfish reasons, have a villain do that. For example, have a villain wake up too early and find himself alone. Then out of loneliness, have the villain wake up the woman but also accidentally wake up the hero (the man) as well. Now you suddenly have a love triangle and that creates far more conflict than “Passengers” does with just the hero roaming around the starship alone for the first 30 minutes with no sense of conflict whatsoever.

Here’s one way to fix “Passengers.” A starship is failing and wakes a man up way too early. Out of panic and fear, this man (the villain) wakes up a beautiful woman but also accidentally wakes up a man in a nearby hibernation pod because the switch to wake up one pod automatically activates the second pod. So now we have a love triangle with two man vying for the heart of one woman. That’s conflict right there, and it creates a likable hero because he’s innocent while the villain is the bad guy who tried to wake up a woman and essentially steal her life for his own happiness, but the woman (and the hero) don’t know this yet.

Now the villain knows he woke up the hero and the woman too soon, but they don’t. That creates tension because eventually they’ll learn what happened. Now instead of the woman falling in love with the villain, the woman starts falling in love with the hero. This creates conflict because now the villain wants to eliminate the hero.

When the starship starts to fail, the three of them have to cooperate to save the starship. Yet when the hero goes outside to open the door to save the reactor, the villain can conspire to lock him out so he’ll die and he’ll be left inside the starship with the woman. Now the hero would have to overcome physical obstacles (just like in the movie) but also overcome the villain who’s trying to kill him. That creates far greater conflict and a more emotionally satisfying victory.

Find a way to make the hero be forced to change to become a better person so he can defeat the villain and you have a far stronger ending than simply showing a hero saving a starship. By adding conflict between a human and tension by creating a love triangle, this version would have created a far more interesting story than what “Passengers” delivers.

As you can see, just taking a moment to think about how a story should be structured is far more valuable than rushing to write the actual screenplay. Once you’ve outlined the basic structure of your story and created the most interesting story possible with the greatest amount of conflict possible, then you can worry about the details. If you fail to create a compelling story, no amount of writing will turn a dull story into an interesting one.

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