Meet Jon Spaihts, the Writer Behind the Movie Passengers

Math and a willingness to go against the grain of science fiction tropes were the foundation of this Hollywood production

4 min read

Wearing nervous expressions, a slightly disheveled, but attractive, man and woman peer through a large circular hatch, at some glowing light source outside the frame of the picture
Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt struggle with a malfunctioning interstellar spaceship
Photo: Sony Pictures

Just released in time for the Holiday weekend in the United States is the science fiction movie Passengers, starring two of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. The action takes place on board an interstellar colony ship, in which all the crew and colonists have been placed in hibernation for the duration of the 120-year voyage—until a mishap wakes Pratt’s character up just 30 years into the trip.

IEEE Spectrum’s Stephen Cass talked with the screenwriter of Passengers, Jon Spaihts, about his inspiration for the movie and the process of bringing his ideas to life in a big Hollywood movie. (Mild spoilers below. The conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.)

Stephen Cass: One of the things I liked about the movie, from an engineering point of view, is the way that it depicts numerous seemingly unrelated minor system failures that herald an escalation towards catastrophic failure. This kind of cascading sequence pops up in real accident reports involving complex systems [PDF]. Were you aware of this pattern and decided to build a story around it, or did you have a specific storytelling problem and found the pattern offered a solution?

John Spaihts: I needed a technical crisis that would fit the profile of the story. Meaning that it needed to make something very small to go wrong at the top of the story—leading to the awakening of our hero—but ultimately needed to swell into a full-blown crescendo that would endanger the entire ship… And I needed something that could affect systems as disparate as the hibernation system and then real ship-threatening systems like propulsion and the powerplant. That led me to think about the only real common thread those systems have, and that was computer control. The notion was that there was was kind of a mainframe computer where there was a central processor core that would just be called by systems all over the ship for processing tasks, and by terrible misfortune that core took a crippling hit, leading every auxiliary and minor processor on the ship assigned the load, with everything running way past rated capacity for years on end until things started to fail, and then of course you get a rapid cascade.

SC: The other engineering aspect I liked is that Passengers is one of the very few screenplays dealing with interstellar travel that talks about the risk of running into debris at very high speeds between the stars, although scientists worry more about tiny dust or gas particles than the asteroid field that’s shown.

JS: (Laughs) Yeah, larger than I would have made them! They are Hollywood particles… It’s something that kind of flowed naturally from the investigation of the premise: If you’re going to make a 120-year journey at half the speed of light, then that really leads you to do a lot of math about the energies involved, the propulsion problem, and I looked a little bit at relativistic math, just to see if time dilation would substantially affect their experience, which at that speed it mostly doesn’t. It’s important for navigation and communication, but not terribly important for life span. But encountering even individual gas molecules at half the speed of light imparts tremendous energies—a potato-sized nickel-iron meteorite would really ruin your whole day! So there’s always going to be some sort of plough at the front of the ship to handle that. The notion [in Passengers] was something penetrating those defenses, which was supposed to be impossible.

SC: Nowadays, a hibernation pod has become a background trope. We’ve seen them in Planet of the Apes, we’ve seen them in Aliens

JS: Yeah, like artificial gravity and force fields. They are just things that the audience accepts.

SC: Right. So in 2016 it seems risky to try to make a trope like that the central conceit of a movie. Why did you decide to go back and try to make a hibernation story fresh again?

JS: I actually think it’s a great way in to any [creative] space that has been paralyzed by cliché. The first script I sold to Warner Brothers was a movie called Shadow 19 (that hasn’t been made), which came out of exactly that kind of thought process. I was complaining to my brother about things that frustrated me about the Star Trek universe. And one of those was what felt to me like a failure of imagination about the ramifications of something as mind blowing as the transporter, or the phaser that made people disappear… The ship had ten God-like technologies that they never thought about! … I said, let’s talk about what the transporters are doing. Are they annihilating the original person and killing him, and then creating a perfect simulacrum over there? Doesn’t that raise a host of moral and philosophical issues? Are they buffering that information in some way—could they mass produce that guy at the other end? Just unpacking the trope led to a startling new story. Passengers results from unpacking the trope of the hypersleep pod that everybody just accepts in a science fiction starship. We say: wait, let’s talk about the ramifications of this and what it means for everyone. It gets very interesting. I think that’s often the best approach to cliché, to run straight at it and unpack it and make everybody look at the pieces.

SC: Another thing that modern audiences have gotten used to seeing is a “heavy industrial” look to movie spaceships.

JS: Yes, raw metal surfaces, unfinished steel!

SC: And Passengers is set on this beautiful spacecraft that looks like a high-end cruise liner with spiraling habitation rings. How much of that was in the original script?

JS: The rotating helix design was definitely the work of Guy Dyas, our production designer, who did an extraordinary job with all the spaces in the ship. The quality of the interiors was very much called out in the script, it was meant to evoke a luxury cruise ship of the future, with spaces of different character. There are a lot of modern concourses, which are the identity of the ship as it’s [designed for carrying passengers]. There are nostalgic spaces which are designed to call back to styles on Earth—you have a French restaurant, Italian restaurant, Mexican restaurant. And then the service compartments of the ship, which are for crew, are much more no-nonsense and utilitarian.

SC: Does that idea of different spaces in the movie also apply to the space suits? The suits the characters rely on don’t have a lot of features found on spacesuits today, such as maneuvering packs.

JS: Yes, those are recreational spacesuits, designed for safety and sightseeing. Somewhere else is the radiation-hardened, thruster-enabled, heavy-duty worksuit. But because heroes don’t have access to the crew spaces, they haven’t found them!

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