The genre of science fiction has a reputation for being the wilderness preserve for bad writing and for fans who have no lives. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells had important themes to express in their stories — Verne has suffered from bad English translators, Walter James Miller being an outstanding exception — and Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke did the same in the middle of the twentieth century. If we expand to the more general category of speculative fiction, let’s remember that J.R.R. Tolkien was consciously working to revive British mythology — in addition to being the reason that we read Beowulf to this day. These are but a few examples out of a broad field.
Take the 2016 film, Passengers, as an illustration of this. There is so much in that movie that should have worked, at least if the blessings of a intriguing premise and talented art direction are worth anything. And it even had Laurence Fishburne for a few minutes. (Oh, by the way, spoilers will be here aplenty.) But just like the many wealthy families whose children are a disappointment, the most promising beginnings can lead to serious flops.
The story has it that a corporation builds starships
There are many things to pick on here. Start with the money being made by the corporation that built the starship Avalon that is transporting five thousand passengers to a colony world many light years away. According to Aurora Lane, one of the two main characters, the profits run into the quadrillions of dollars. How that’s supposed to work isn’t clear, especially since the journey one way takes 120 years. The East India Company was willing to accept a delay of months to years for a return on investment, but I’m not aware of any business that would have the patience to send a ship out on the vague hope that in two and a half centuries they’ll be paid back with interest.
Where the ship is going is never specified, other than the unhelpful name of Homestead II. At the time that the movie starts, the voyage has been going on for thirty years. During the thirty-first year, the Avalon swings by Arcturus, a star that is 36.7 light years from Earth. How this is possible is also not explained, since we’re told that the ship is moving at half the speed of light. Now given what appears to be the ship’s propulsion, an ion drive, it would have taken a long time to accelerate up to that velocity, and the most distance that could have been covered in thirty years would have been — at the very most — somewhat less than fifteen light years.
The Science vs. Cinema channel on YouTube raised another point about Arcturus. The stated reason for approaching the star was to use the slingshot effect to gain velocity. According to astrophysicist Andy Howell, this effect works when a spaceship takes some energy from the momentum of a planet in orbit, but that doesn’t work with stars. I’ll defer to his knowledge, though I do have to ask if the proper motion of a star through the galaxy could produce the same result. However, since the movie doesn’t tell us where the colony world is, it’s impossible to check if the writer or director meant to exploit that particular motion.
And then there’s the ship itself. The Avalon is beautiful, as I’d expect from someone who has spent years in the film industry in the art department. However, artists do need to consult with engineers from time to time. The ship does correctly use rotation to create artificial gravity. The design of the habitation sections is supposed to have come from sycamore pods, but there’s a reason that typical ships with spinning crew quarters use a ring or a sphere. The Avalon is said to be a thousand meters long. That means that the radius of the support pylons holding up the inhabited spaces of the ship something like three hundred meters. To simulate Earth’s gravity — and given the movements of the people and objects on board, I’m taking the acceleration to be 1g — would require 1.73 rotations per minute. That’s said to be slow enough for human comfort, though there should be a noticable Coriolis effect going on, but some things are hard to film, perhaps.
The problem, though, with the design is that by choosing the angled leaf structure, the architect is giving up the strength inherent in a circle. The angular momentum generated by rotating large parts of the ship 1.73 times a minute is such that anything that alters the rotation would tend to shear those structures right off their pylons.
And that’s exactly what happens. The altering of the rotation, that is, not the shearing. In the film, the rotation just stops. I don’t mean that it slows down. No, it goes from full angular speed to zero in about a second. Now ripping the Avalon to shreds and turning everyone inside to chunky salsa might have been an interesting ending to the film, instead, the gravitational simulation simply turns off, allowing the water in a pool to float gently upward — inward, from the perspective of the central axis of the ship. Of course, what really would have happened, discounting the shredding and condiments, is that the water, along with Aurora Lane, would have been thrown against the side wall, since even if the habitation space could come to a sudden halt, the objects inside would keep going.
As I mentioned above, the propulsion appears to be ion drive, and while I’m guessing, that’s the logical technology to use. Ion drives provide slow but steady acceleration that can run for years on little propellant. We used just that technology in the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres. If you’ve got a long way to go and no warp drive, an ion thruster is the best choice we know of. And while the fusion reactor as a power source isn’t yet available, though we have some good possible designs being worked on currently.
But why would that reactor have a big glass window? I say that’s its material, since it fractures in the manner that a thick pane of glass would today, but what’s the point? The temperatures and pressures inside are such that no matter how much the engineer wants to see the fusion going on, it’s a bad idea.
Supposedly, a meteor strike along the way damaged the reactor’s control computer, which takes two years to cause various systems of the ship to stop working. Except, once again, things aren’t as shown. A fission reactor takes a good while to shut down in an emergency. The control rods have to absorb enough of the neutrons flying about to slow the splitting of atoms in the fuel rods, and whatever cools the reactor — water, typically — has to draw off enough of the heat.
To shut down a fusion reactor, all you have to do is shut off the flow of fuel. There’s only as much reaction going on as there is fuel in the chamber. So the much ado involved with opening a vent to let the hot gases out was needless histrionics. If those gases were to be vented as shown in the film, they would burn through many types of ion drive systems. And through the hero in the exhaust port, even if he is holding a hatch cover in front of him.
While I’m on the subject of the engine room, where’s the gravitational effect coming from? The spaces for the passengers are spinning. The central part of the ship is not. And if the ship has a rational design, which I started doubting only a few minutes into the film, the reactor is in the center section, as far as possible from where the people on board tend to hang out.
This critique is only a sample of the problems with Passengers. The premise of someone being alone in deep space potentially for decades unless he makes the decision to wake someone else up from hibernation who will thereby share the voyage with him but will also thusly be condemned to die before reaching the promised destination could have made a good story. Instead, we’re shown scene after scene of the man growing a beard and drinking, but doing not much else, and then comes a brief love affair, followed by an angry breakup. The audience, not having been given enough reason to care about the man, Jim Preston, and his plight, feels sorry for Aurora and empathizes with her when she dumps Jim for waking her up unnecessarily. And we never are given a reason to accept that she takes him back just because he’s not fried and then frozen while restarting the reactor.
If this were simply a bad film, I’d let it go. But as a writer in the genre, I take abuses of science fiction personally. That’s especially so since I’m working right now on the third book in my Concordia Series, a story that features a starship with a rotating habitation ring and an ion drive. The story could have been so much better had a competent writer developed it. It could have been a decent horror story told through the mechanism of a romance. But thanks to its many flaws, it ended up being a failure.
For more of my writing, including the first two novels of the Concordia Series, go here.