Saturday, January 07, 2017

The bright and hollow sky: a review of Passengers


I went to see the new science fiction film Passengers this week. This is the synopsis from the official web site:
Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt star in an exciting action-thriller about two passengers who are on a 120-year journey to another planet when their hibernation pods wake them 90 years too early. Jim and Aurora are forced to unravel the mystery behind the malfunction as the ship teeters on the brink of collapse, with the lives of thousands of passengers in jeopardy.
The film has been controversial because
  • Jim watches, cyberstalks and then wakes Aurora from hibernation, even though he knows it's wrong and
  • the trailers conceal this "plot twist", leading you to think that the two main characters were in it together by mutual choice or accident.

I was aware of the critiques of the film, but just wanted to see starships.

The starship Avalon. Avalon is the island where King Arthur sleeps, waiting to return.

The ethics of choice

But, I'm sad to say, the film can't escape its rotten core.  The plot is divided into roughly three parts. In the first, the aim is to build sympathy for the character of Jim Preston, awake 90 years too early and destined to die alone on the colony ship. Then he starts becoming obsessed with the sleeping Aurora - and oh, I've just got that one, as Aurora is also the name of the Disney Sleeping Beauty, woken by a kiss from the prince - and despite knowing that waking her is condemning her to the death of his choosing, he decides to do it. 

Of course Aurora is beautiful, blonde, and eminently fuckable. This is what he chooses. I'm not the only person to reflect on a different choice - the computer Holly's selection of the obnoxious Rimmer as Lister's companion on board the mining ship Red Dwarf, after all the crew have perished. Holly does not bring back Lister's crush Kristine Kochanski (who didn't know he fancied her), but the person most likely to keep him sane. Lister has a similar unhealthy obsession with Kochanski, but at least he knew her in real life.


The second part is when Aurora finds out what he's done and repudiates him. In typical stalker fashion, he's as incapable of recognising her agency and leaving her alone as he was when he formed his one-sided attachment to her. The situation seems irreparable. Now both of them will be alone on the huge ship, avoiding each other until, one presumes, death.

The accidentally woken Gus agrees with Aurora's assessment of murder, but in an action a billion women will recognise, minimises the seriousness of Jim's deed and brushes aside her claim because there are bigger problems. Now I'm not saying the imminent death of 5000 people isn't a bigger problem; it's rather the dismissive attitude that rankles. It's the beginning of the persuasion process to bring Aurora to heel.

To move things along, the ship starts to malfunction. This is a crisis manufactured (plot-wise) to allow Jim the opportunity to redeem himself and make himself worthy of her love by acting in a heroic manner. He has to offer to sacrifice himself to save the remaining 4997 souls aboard the ship. Now it's her turn to contemplate 90 years of solitude. She begs him not to do it, because, we are to understand, that little murder thing is just a minor obstacle in the way of true love. Is this supposed to be her equivalent moral dilemma?

Needless to say they save the ship and survive, living happily every after.

As many people have pointed out, there are numerous ways you could have still had a really gripping plot with all the suspense of the final race to save the ship, without Jim stealing Aurora's life. The heroics of the final scenes ring hollow when you realise their purpose is to provide a reason for her to stop hating him and allow him to "get the girl" in the end.

For my money, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the character of Arthur the android bartender. Arthur clearly has the ability to develop and react to people and situations, learning over time. His dialogue is finely done, revealing the limitations of a personality run by algorithms. There is a black hole in some areas which correspond precisely to the points where a human has to make a moral decision, such as to lie or to do something that affects another person adversely. He can't advise Jim as he is unable to reconcile the unreconcilable opposites on the horns of the dilemma.

Arthur the Android Bartender. Arthur, hovering between life and death on the island of Avalon. Do I detect a theme here?

Why do shopping malls and concourses all look the same?

There's many things to appreciate about the way technology and society have been imagined in this future world. Commentary on capitalism and class, automation and autonomy is minimal but illuminating. Like the best fantasy, the underlying logic and philosophy is just hinted at. We know that corporations rule; it is an uber-capitalist society, perhaps the end result of the present growth of the commercialisation of space. 

On board the ship, cabins and services appear to be strictly stratified by what level people have paid for. First class get fancy suites and crepes for breakfast; the hoi polloi get small cabins and generic coffee. Everyone comes together in the concourse and the dining rooms, though. There also appears to be no differentiation in the hibernation pods. Jim and Aurora come out of identical pods despite the fact that she's a first class passenger and he's a mechanic.

The concourse

The concourse looks every bit of the same non-place as an airport (Changi springs to mind). As in a casino, there are no windows to let you know what time of day it is; or in this case, to remind you that you're light years from a solid planetary surface. But you can see out of the spaceship, as there appear to be numerous viewing decks.

Does the overview effect exist when you can't see the Earth?

There are some just breathtaking views of outer space far, far from Earth. The infinity pool, where one end is enclosed in a transparent bubble so the swimmer appears to be swimming out into open space, is stunning. It's a simple but effective visual play on the concept of the infinitude of space.

What is also interesting is the human reactions to being in naked space. Jim and Aurora venture outside the spaceship suited up and safely tethered, looking into a limitless abyss filled with stars. The stars are unfamiliar - they are not the night sky of Earth, which is 36 light years or so behind them.

This is an experience we don't yet have on Earth. There is, in fact, no human experience of space which is not dominated by the Earth and moon. Sure, you can look away from the Earth, but astronauts are always situated in relation to it or within view of it, or in its gravity well. There are many accounts of the reaction known as the "Overview Effect": a feeling of united humanity and the insignificance of petty terrestrial wars and politics when the whole fragile Earth is seen in perspective from outer space. Now I'm a bit skeptical of claims that this would be a universal human reaction (if only all humans had the opportunity to do it). But perhaps we need to understand the Overview Affect against something we can only imagine at this point, the feeling when the Earth is out of view - not even the pale blue dot, just absent.

Wouldn't you feel adrift, unmoored, with no way home? Wouldn't this inspire an existential terror that would threaten to overwhelm your very being?

I am a passenger
I stay under a glass
I look through my window so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
I see the bright and hollow sky

Iggy Pop, The Passenger

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss": the children's playground as a variable gravity environment

Despite the various rationales of playground design and equipment from the 1890s to the 1980s, one aspect remains constant: the physical engagement of the child with structures which require climbing, swinging, gripping and running. The ‘apparatus such as swings, slides and jungle gyms’ in public playgrounds were aimed at developing ‘confidence, muscular strength, co-ordination and skill in balance’ (Apps 1944: 33). What has previously gone without remark, precisely because it is so ubiquitous on Earth as to be unremarkable, is a certain relationship with gravity, which both made the equipment suitable for training bodies, and at the same time dangerous.

Each of the standard pieces of playground equipment – swings, jungle gyms, monkey bars, see saws, round-abouts, slides, merry-go-rounds etc, invites a child to elevate themselves, experience centrifugal force, or ballistic trajectories. These experiences also court risk – falling off the apparatus and feeling the full force of gravity in collision with the ground. A playground could thus be described as a “variable gravity environment” (Doule 2014).

One interview conducted with a child suggests that this variable gravity is a desirable experience (Ota et al 1997:22).

Q: What does it feel like on the swings?
B: It feels like a rocket going backwards and forwards.
Q: Up in the air?
B: Yes
Q: Is it as good as the tree [another of B’s favourite places], or just different to the tree?
B: It’s different if you shut your eyes.
Q: Then how does it feel?
B: It feels scary. It’s black and looks like you’re in space.
Q: Do you imagine you’re going anywhere?...
B: Yes
Q: The swing that’s a rocket?
B: Yeh …..whoosh!”

Gravity is the unspoken subtext beneath the appeal of the apparatus which mimicked feelings of flying or microgravity, yet contained within it a fear of falling. Early Austrian rocket theorist, Hermann Noordung, noted that falling was a source of anxiety on Earth and raised the question of whether the fear of falling would be an impediment for astronauts operating in microgravity. He concluded that since pilots and ski jumpers adapt to falling, this fear was not an impediment to human operations in orbit (1929:79).

The fear was also a desirable part of the experience, with many adults regretting the demise of the ‘dangerous’ playground (Hattersley-Drayton 2013). Such desires and fears seem deeply rooted in the human psyche. Dreams of flying/falling are known as “typical” dreams, in that they occur across all cultures, genders and age ranges (Maggiolini et al 2007, Nielson et al 2003). While falling dreams are often associated with a sense of dread or negativity, flying dreams are universally reported as positive experiences. Both playground equipment and flying/falling dreams express a relationship to gravity. 

Adults and children had other ways to engage with variable gravity environments on Earth, however, in the theme park or amusement park. These also feature gravity-defying rides such as roller coasters, another American obsession. While the playground invites the child to become familiar with the effects of gravity in a safe environment, the amusement park is aimed at evoking the visceral fear of falling at speed, coupled with the terror of the fairground accident. Amusement parks typically feature roller coasters, drop towers (scientific drop towers are used for microgravity experiments), and centrifuges. The most advanced version of this is the zero-gravity aeroplane rides known as “vomit comets”.

It is ironic, then, that playground rockets were static. They did not move or ever take off, although they could be slid down and climbed. As one playground designer commented, “The Rocket Ship in reality has very limited play value. It is basically a climber to a slide” (Hendy 2008). It seems one aspect of the rocket’s appeal was the height – surely the highest ascent available to a child in the playground (Hendy 2008), and by reasons of scale, appearing so much higher than to an adult. Perhaps this is also the appeal of climbing trees.

The Rocket Park in Ulverstone, Tas.
(Author's image)
Nevertheless, the rocket remained stubbornly popular. Only one thing can explain why, perhaps, rockets stood as space age monuments in the imagination of the child, and that is their intersection with what was actually happening in the real world of space exploration, accessible to children through other toys, children’s books, television and news.

Children’s literature of the 19th and early 20th century contained many accounts of bodies in microgravity eg in the wonderful Dr Dolittle in the Moon (Lofting 1929), and The Light Princess (MacDonald 1964). C.J. Dennis even imagined the the first Australian in orbit, a schoolboy called Neville who was whisked around the Earth by a cloud-horse in one night (Dennis 1921, Gorman 2015). In the fantasy playground period from the 1950s to 1970s imagination met reality as first-hand accounts of spaceflight became available.

Note: this is a deleted section from a paper on rocket parks that I am currently writing. I realised that the gravity hypothesis didn't really belong in the main argument. But I still like the theory that I'm proposing here, and so thought I would share it with you.


Apps, BFG 1944 Children’s Playgrounds. Canberra: National Fitness Council
Doule, Ondrej 2014 Ground Control. Space architecture as defined by variable gravity. In Neil Leach (ed) Space architecture: the new frontier in design research, pp 90-95 John Wiley and Sons Ltd
Gorman, A.C. 2015 The first Australian to orbit the Earth. Space Age Archaeology.
Hendy, Terry 2008 Dynamic playground design. In Heights Park Master Plan Playground Task Force Recommendations Presentation. Richardson, Texas.
Lofting, Hugh 1929 [1968] Dr Dolittle in the Moon. Harmondsworth: Penguin
MacDonald, George 1864 [1994] The light princess. In Alison Lurie (ed) The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Maggiolini, Alfo, Anna Persico and Franca Crippa 2007 Gravity Content in Dreams. Dreaming 17(2): 87–97
Nielsen, A. T., Zadra, A. L., Simard, V., Saucier, S., Stenstro, P., Smith, C. 2003 The typical
dreams of Canadian University students. Dreaming 13(4): 211–235.
Ota, Cathy, Clive Erricker and Jane Erricker 1997 The secrets of the playground. Pastoral Care in Education 15(4): 19-24