We examine the latest sci-fi blockbuster, ‘Passengers’, and its bizarre comic doppelgänger from over 60 years ago
The Christmas weekend is traditionally when major film studios decide to release certain tent pole films. A lot of blockbusters are intentionally held for this coveted time period, with Sony choosing to follow that strategy this year with the film Passengers—a claustrophobic morality play set in space starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Passengers has performed well for Sony so far (it’ll be nicely rounding a $50 million gross right about now) with the majority being impressed with the film. While I found myself super into the movie’s premise, I ultimately thought that it squandered most of the opportunities that it brought up. That’s why I was so excited when I learned that a story out of EC Comics’ Weird Science line titled “50 Girls 50” is not only eerily similar to Morten Tyldum’s latest film, but it does all of the things that I wish Passengers had the guts to pull off.
Simply put, the major difference between Passengers and “50 Girls 50” is that one is made by a colossal film studio and the other is from a radical, sensationalistic comics line from the ’50s. There’s a tremendous amount of overlap that occurs between these two stories, but it’s in the minor ways in which they differ that makes them truly interesting comparison points. For the uninitiated (or for those who can’t watch a trailer), Passengers’ plot involves Chris Pratt’s Jim and Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora awakening from a 120-year hypersleep ninety years early of their expected thaw date. With Jim and Aurora doomed to live out their lives on this spaceship as it heads for its destination point, an unlikely romance blossoms between the two of them in this bleak as a black hole situation. The daring twist that Passengers employs (Warning: There Be Spoilers Ahead Here…) is that a malfunction in the ship’s system causes Jim to wake up early on his own. It’s only after Jim gets tired of exhausting the ship’s entertainment catalogue and becoming best friends with his hand that he eventually chooses to thaw out some comely crew member to break up the monotony. It’s a bold, selfish decision on Jim’s part as it’s one that is essentially condemning Aurora to the same slow, pointless death that’s been cursed onto him.
This is of course a major paradigm shift for Jim and Aurora’s relationship, but it’s a reveal that happens to Aurora late in the game. The film is much more concerned with the courtship of these two isolated individuals as this off-kilter love story continues to gain fuel. When it’s not digging into the romance angle of all of this, the film shifts to being interested in survival tactics and the strengths of working together—with the extra emotional baggage needing to be set aside—as the ship becomes the real antagonist and problem solving is in order. In “50 Girls 50”, the fascination lies in exploring the dangers of man rather than technical difficulties, even though it is coming out of an issue of Weird Science after all.
Let’s really dig into “50 Girls 50” though because odds are you’re less familiar with an Al Williamson and Al Feldstein (PS: Feldstein would later end up running Mad Magazine for its first 30 years) comic from the 1950s than you are with the latest 3D spectacle starring Katniss Everdeen and Star-Lord.
The EC Comics story depicts the interstellar voyage of Sid, who wakes up from his 100 year-long colonization mission a measly two years into travel. Rather than burn out his clock with mindless distractions and empty entertainment, Sid instead decides to demonstrate how big of a sociopath he is. It doesn’t take long for Sid to start sizing up Wendy, a hibernating crew member that he is more than ready to de-thaw and imprison to a life with him. However, Sid instead exhibits a much more twisted thought. Rather than “starting” with Wendy, Sid decides that it would be better to “practice” his way up through all of the frozen women and finally culminate with awakening Wendy. Through all of this Sid refers to these sleeping passengers as his “dolls” and determines that a year with each woman is all that it will take until he grows “sick” of them and it’s time to murder, de-thaw, rape, repeat. In this story “Aurora” is simply one roadside stop along Sid’s vacation to polyamory. “And one by one, until I grew old and senile, I’d taste fresh love,” Sid says at one point when relishing in his plan. At another moment of reflection, he boasts, “How many times does a man dream of being marooned on a desert island with a beautiful woman? Now, for me, the dream had come true, marooned on a rocket-ship-island…in space.”
Even though “50 Girls 50”’s protagonist wants to get a much bigger space harem going than Chris Pratt’s character, the character beats felt between Sid and his female companion are almost identical. When Sid interrupts his first victim, Laura’s, hibernation, he plays it clueless much like Jim in Passengers. “We were supposed to be frozen for a hundred years…We’ll have to live out our lives on the ship. Die out here in space,” Jim tells Laura through mock-dread. Curiously, the film makes the situation that the comic does by having you, the audience, be complicit in the protagonist’s actions. Passengers suddenly become a very different film if you’re kept in the dark along with Aurora and just view her awakening as yet another accident. It’s a crucial detail that further ties these two pieces together. Later, once Sid and Laura have acclimated to each other and are going through the honeymoon phase, Laura’s response to Sid’s actions are not unlike what Aurora goes through in Passengers. As it dawns on Laura that “You did it on purpose. You wanted company. You wanted…Oh, God…and now you’re bored,” it’s almost impossible to not think of Jim and Aurora’s situation.
The major difference at play in “50 Girls 50” is that when Sid finally does awaken Wendy after he’s sowed the rest of his space oats, we learn that she’s actually backstabbing him. Wendy is double-crossing Sid for another passenger on the spaceship. The only thing is they have no idea that Sid has messed with the ship’s clock, ultimately dooming them in all of this too. It’s a super dark conclusion that almost goes out of its way to burn every bridge possible. It’s a long way from Pratt and Lawrence cuddling in bed while they watch galaxies lazily pass by.
On that note, Passengers practically depicts Jim’s courting of Aurora as a quirky and charming adventure. The film contributes to this feeling by using the affectations of space to do unique takes on the standard rom-com tropes. Jim is deconstructing text message equivalents with an android confidant as he smirks about Aurora. It’s a much more romanticized version of the sheer horror story that “50 Girls 50” presents. The only sort of union that’s depicted there is when Sid and Wendy plot to become a murderous team, not some sort of meet-cute in space. Their aim is to build an army of slaves. This is the only marginal female perspective provided in “50 Girls 50” whereas, in spite of Aurora’s original passive status in all of this, the film still provides you with plenty of scenes from her perspective. Her take on things is still important here.
Passengers even contains a moment where Jim pointedly asks Aurora, “Do you trust me?” There are no such honesty exercises in “50 Girls 50”. Interestingly though, “50 Girls 50” does contain a fresh angle where the fifty men and fifty women assembled for the mission are all in peak shape with each man actually having an ideal mate with one of the women. It’s an inclusion that’s inherently romantic and yet the comic practically ignores it, rubbing your face in its gloomy conclusion. Passengers ends with Aurora working so hard to save Jim and being devastated when it looks like she cannot. There’s no vengeance or bitterness present here, only selfless love. Furthermore, Jim and Aurora ostensibly get their happy ending at the conclusion of everything! Neither Chris Pratt nor Jennifer Lawrence is watching the other “turn putrescent.”
These are, of course, the broader differences between these two works when it comes to their respective, but even examining the tone of these two pieces yields some fascinating results. For instance, the title, “Passengers”, reflects rolling with the places that life takes you and not being in control of that trajectory. It’s about embracing submissiveness to an extent as you adapt to where life takes you. It’s a very accepting point of view for what’s going on here, whereas the message and viewpoint in “50 Girls 50” is much more about greed, vengeance, and hedonism. The title there gets to the brass tacks of it all too, simplifying the story down to just numbers and women. Even when the inevitable turn takes place in Passengers, its overlying message is still one that’s about embracing chaos and making it work for you, rather than taking charge and holding people responsible for controlling your life. Perhaps that’s why the characters in Passengers can reach their “happy” ending; they’re able to accept and adapt to the lots they’ve been dealt. Both Sid and Wendy in “50 Girls 50” are opportunistic individuals who will scramble, betray, and do whatever is necessary so they don’t have to adapt. It’s a stubbornness that costs them their lives.
While I prefer the darker, more terror embracing direction that “50 Girls 50” takes with this premise, in Passengers’ defense, Tyldum does play the big reveal as a moment of horror. In this pivotal scene Lawrence’s work in her reaction is nothing short of amazing and it conveys volume towards the fear that she’s feeling in this moment. Passengers keeps the story largely limited to Jim and Aurora but in that moment Aurora feels as if she’s trapped on this ship with Jack Torrance—or perhaps more appropriately, a bloodthirsty Xenomorph—that’s how broken she feels. It’s a moment that should play like horror and Tyldum turns that and Aurora’s impending breakdown into frightening, unpredictable moments for the most part. This horror also connects much more effectively as at this point in the film as this betrayer is the person that Aurora is in love with. It works all the better due to taking its time, even if the time it takes is done so in rather cliché, eye rolling fashion.
I firmly believe that the vast similarities between Jon Spaihts’ screenplay and Williamson and Feldstein’s comic are purely coincidental and I wouldn’t be surprised if Spaihts has never even heard of the story. The discovery is merely one that surprised and excited me, especially since Passengers had appropriately warmed me up but left me feeling unfulfilled. If you’re eager for a dark bizarro version of Tyldum’s film, “50 Girls 50” should keep you satisfied until the Spaihts-scripted, The Mummy, comes out.
Now, if the story beats for that end up replicating EC Comics’ “This Wraps It Up” from out of Tales From the Crypt #35, then we should maybe begin to get suspicious of Spaihts.
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