Jun 17 2016 8:30am

Passengers and the Questionable Promise of Sci-Fi Romance Films

An out of this world romance...

On December 21, 2016, Sony Pictures Entertainment will release a film called Passengers starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. The film was conceived of and written by Prometheus scribe Jon Spaihts. Morten Tyldum is the director.

The media has been describing this film as a sci-fi romance. Here’s the premise:

“A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in one of its sleep chambers. As a result, a single passenger is awakened 60 years early. Faced with the prospect of growing old and dying alone, he eventually decides to wake up a second passenger.”

Interestingly, Passengers has been garnering positive buzz:

“Earlier this week, Den of Geek was invited to see a presentation of footage from Sony Pictures and its subsidiaries’ upcoming film slate, and while there were a lot of early trailers and footage of lots of cool genre movies they have slated, the standout was clearly the first footage from Passengers, starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.

Directed by Morten Tyldum, the Norwegian filmmaker whose previous movie The Imitation Game got him nominated for an Oscar, it looks like a fantastic science fiction film in the vein of The Martian and the original Alien, although it offers a romantic angle that those films did not have.”

-(Via Den of Geek!)

You had us at “romantic angle”

Let’s zero in on the “romantic angle” of which they speak, shall we?

Sci-fi romance books are great, but many of us enjoy an SF flavored romance on TV or in theatres as well. Unfortunately, these types of shows and movies are rare, at least in terms of the stories’ adherence to genre conventions. Not only that, many are helmed and/or produced by men—hardly the same folks who know genre romance inside and out. So when news of a blockbuster movie like Passengers emerges, it creates a conundrum for romance fans.

With sci-fi romance books, an HEA is guaranteed. That’s not always the case for romances in other mediums. Occasionally, we can gleam clues about the fate of the HEA from news articles. More often than not, we can’t, because naturally that would constitute spoilers.

While Hollywood embraces upbeat endings for many types of films (e.g., the mystery is solved, the cop/FBI agent apprehends the killer, the family is reunited, or the mission is successfully completed), the same doesn’t always hold true for romances, whether they’re the main focus or a subplot.

SEE ALSO: Sci-Fi Romance Done Right: Farscape’s Aeryn Sun and John Crichton

Often, the perception is that a romance isn’t a true romance unless it ends tragically. It’s a case of a Hollywood studio wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. Oh, they say, a romance will attract female audiences, but the film can’t actually be a romance or men won’t watch it. The studios know romance has power. The problem is they’re afraid it might burn them if they embrace it too closely.

Perfect Sense (featuring Eva Green and Ewan McGregor) is an example of this dynamic. It’s a romantic SF film wherein the romance has a bittersweet, and some might even say, a tragic ending. Yet the movie poster features a highly romantic depiction of the starring couple. It’s not nearly as ambiguous as the film’s ending.

Conversely, Safety Not Guaranteed (starring Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza) has a romance with an HEA, but you wouldn’t know it from the poster or description.

Will we be emotionally invested?

Films like Passengers that promise a prominent romance can lead to frustration since there’s frequently not enough information we can use to make predictions about genre convention conformance. Therefore, it can be a challenge to manage our expectations.

Do we emotionally invest in the romance and hope our trust will be rewarded? Hedge our bets? Go in with the expectation that the romance will inevitably be doomed so as to avoid disappointment? Ask around for the ending so we know for sure ahead of time (which doesn’t seem fair given the marketing labels being tossed around)?

The Passengers premise tells us there’s a strong chance the couple will spend a lot of time together. Yet they’re aboard a ship that’s sixty years away from its destination. On the one hand, that angle alone has potential for an SFR with an HEA (for the record, I’d watch the heck out of that scenario!). On the other hand, I have doubts that a male filmmaking team would trust that a developing romance aboard a long distance space ship is enough of a story. It’s possible some kind of danger will come into play that will not only threaten the romance, but push the plot in another direction entirely.

SEE ALSO: Top 10 Sci-Fi Film Romances: Star Trek,Star Wars, The Matrix, and More!

I’m curious about whether the film will address the fact that Jennifer Lawrence’s character was awoken without her consent. That element could create some interesting romantic conflict, but it’s questionable whether the filmmakers would allow it to unfold only in the context of a romance, as opposed to it being a catalyst for another type of story entirely.

I wish I could be more helpful regarding what you can expect from Passengers, but I fear studios don’t yet fully grasp (or want to grasp) exactly what a label like “sci-fi romance” implies or could even mean for their profit margins. I, for one, will not be seeing Passengers in theatres unless the HEA’s fate is made clear beforehand. In the meantime, I’ll wait to hear from people who see it first in order to determine if it truly falls into the sci-fi romance category.

When it comes to the promise of a romance in a film, how do you manage your expectations? How do you think Hollywood has handled genre romance so far?

Image sources:

Heather Massey seeks out sci-fi romance adventures and writes about them for Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly. She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her published work, visit

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P J Dean
1. P J Dean
I'd like to see "Passengers" simply because it's different. I have to admit a space movie without any ray-guns is ok with me. I'm glad H'wood took a chance but knowing them they will chicken out with the romance and the film will veer more toward Scifi to keep the male viewers happy.
P J Dean
2. L. T. D.
It has been billed as an EPIC space romance. Also, yes that issue is dealt with, and an old version of the script is on the internet if you are really interested, but even though they have clearly made changes, it is obviously full of spoilers.

Did you see the tweets from CinemaCon when they showed footage, though? There were reactions to the sci fi aspects, but the big takeaway was "HOT!!" And "You are about to ship JLaw and Pratt SO HARD!" etc.

I wouldn't be concerned that this isn't a romance, but yeah, sure, there is a thriller plot. l. I don't think the romance will lose by that, there has to be a conflict, doesn't there?
3. DanaSherwood
I'm a sucker for SFR from way back, and I'll probably see this one even though waking her up has a nonconsensual feel to it that may bug me. If I get the sense we may be robbed of a proper HEA, I'll no doubt read spoilers beforehand. :-)
Jennifer Proffitt
4. JenniferProffitt
Based on the trailer that just came out, I'd say the promise is not questionable anymore!
P J Dean
5. Kahintenn
Be sure to see Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's new sci-if film, when it opens. Just saw it at TIFF. It will not disappoint. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.
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