In Groundhog Day (1993), selfish weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) must relive the same day over and over again until he becomes a better person. In the story, the antagonist is not a person, but rather the concept of time itself. The film became known as a comedy classic.
Over 20 years later, Passengers (2016) and Pam Springs (2020) came out. Like Groundhog Day, both films focused about characters trapped in time. Both also came from spec scripts by then relatively unknown writers. In both cases, the producers and studio took a gamble making the project. However, Passengers became known as a problematic and questionable movie, while Palm Springs garnered a strong critical and audience reception.
Warning: Spoilers ahead
After finding himself trapped on the malfunctioning spaceship Avalon, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) must wait out the next 90 years before the ship reaches its destination. In desperation, he decides to wake up the beautiful Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and doom her to the same fate.
Passengers had a long production history. It began as a concept by screenwriter Jon Spaihts, who became for writing Prometheus (2012) during Passengers’ production history. Spaihts pitched the idea (a man trapped alone in space) to actor Keanu Reeves and his producing partner Stephen Hamel. They liked it and hired Spaihts to write the script. The script became a loved script among executives and made it onto the 2007 Black List, a list of much loved unproduced screenplays.
Besides Reeves, the project also went through many big-name actors and directors. Other actresses attached included Reese Witherspoon and Rachel McAdams. When it finally came to fruition, it had newer people at the helm. Chris Pratt became an in demand leading man after starring in both Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie in 2013. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum had gotten noticed for his English language debut The Imitation Game (2014). All of the people involved had come off very successful projects before this.
In selling the movie, the DVD featurettes revolve around three major aspects: the concept, new star Chris Pratt, and the set design. Each of these played an instrumental role in getting the movie made.
Passengers came out to middling success critically. Both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic report a lower score for critics and a mildly higher audience score (scoring slightly above average both times). More than anything, the film was largely seen as disappointing by critics and audiences.
Over the years, it also became the subject of numerous online reviews and video essays. Nerdwriter1 examined how the film could have been rearranged if the film focused on the perspective of Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora rather than Chris Pratt’s Jim. Pop Culture Detective used the film to explore the idea of “Abduction as Romance” as a trope. All of these delved into what they found to be the film’s disappointing nature.
Passengers encompasses multiple genres. According to Spaihts, this became one of the hardest things to sell about the movie, as it did not follow Hollywood genre conventions. This challenge made the film much harder to package.
When it comes to design, the film resembles a horror film, complete with ominous music and design. Tyldum purposefully designed the bar and robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) in the story to resemble the ones from Stanley Kubrick’s horror film The Shining (1980). Similarly, much of the sound design seems to be meant to instill dread in the audience. The film has a few jump scares too. All suggest horror.
On the other side of the story sits the screenplay and the performance aspects of the movie. The story structure resembles a romantic comedy, complete with the protagonist harboring a secret that threatens to destroy their relationship. However, what Jim does is much darker than a romantic comedy. Chris Pratt plays a lighter version of the character, with many improvised takes of him acting with machines and Jennifer Lawrence. Like a romantic comedy, the film has a final coda that Aurora narrates. After this final message to the audience, Imagine Dragon’s upbeat rock song “Levitate” plays over the end credits.
Similarly, much of the script plays like a social satire on wealth and technology, with a warm lovable simpleton going up against cold intellectual forces that sharply contrast him. The romantic leads share the same dynamic as the romantic leads in Titanic (1997). Despite this, the film never explores these aspects in any other way besides as a set-up.
According to Screenrant, the original script worked better than the finished film. It has a much more comedic tone than the finished film and answers the film’s moral quandary better than the completed product. The article does say that the film reveals Jim’s misdeed in a much harsher way.
The third act also is substantially different. It has a much clearer sense of what happened to the ship and what is malfunctioning. It also has Jim and Aurora fail to stop the ship. Thinking it has docked, the ship ends up killing every other passenger by dumping them into space. When the ship does arrive in 100 years, all the passengers that get out are the descendants that get out are Jim and Aurora’s descendants.
The film’s third act basically turns the ship into a dragon for Jim to fight. He decides to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the other passengers, despite Aurora’s wishes against it.
The Homestead company has created the Avalon to go to its new planet. Buying into Homstead’s marketing, Jim has decided to go to space on the Avalon to seek out a new frontier. When the ship malfunctions, it becomes the primary antagonist of the story. However, the film follows Jim’s ethical decisions.
The whole opening of the movie has Jim go through a major character arc before even meeting Aurora. It has Jim discovering his situation, having fun with it, then becoming despondent. The sequence ends with Jim having to decide whether to realize the airlock, sending him out into space. This all happens within the first thirty minutes.
However, despite all of this, Him never loses faith in the Avalon’s mission or the Homestead company. He is the one who shows Aurora the wonders of Homestead’s mission rather than becoming disillusioned with a company that consistently treats him terribly. Besides stranding him, it limits what he can order and buy. At the end of the story, he seems largely unchanged in terms of characterization or morality.
Framing of Character
The moral quandary of the film involves Jim waking Aurora up by tampering with her hibernation pod. This choice dooms her to a life on the ship. Director Morten Tyldum sees this as a decision most people would make in the same circumstance. Although Jim makes a morally reprehensible decision, the film presents him as the hero of the story.
The opening has Jim as a lovable yet insecure character. One of his first real actions when he wakes up is to ask the computer to him “Jim” instead of James. He shows off his cool jacket. The film also shows Chris Pratt’s muscular body in the shower early on.
The rest of the film also presents Jim as heroic as a knight. There is a scene where Jim takes Aurora out on a spacewalk outside the ship. The scene resembles the Superman (1978) or Aladdin (1992) flying scenes. Jim even asks if Aurora trusts her. In the climax, the character fights the ship’s reactor core while using a door as a shield. Jim also offers to put her back in hibernation at the end. On top of all that, Jim never really has to change for Aurora or anybody else.
All of these creative decisions suggest a heroic character rather than a morally ambiguous one.
The Love Interest
Unlike Jim, Aurora comes from a more privileged and intellectual background. Her father was a Hemingway-esque Pulitzer Prize winning author. A young woman, Aurora has not experienced much of life yet. She chose to take a flight on the Avalon so she could wake up centuries in the future to a changed world.
Her arc presents her as a snob needing to be brought down to the more down-to-earth Jim’s level. In a scene where Aurora watches a video of her friend back on earth, her friend in the video tells her that she hopes she lets down her guard and meets somebody who loves her. The film presents Jim as the lovable simpleton Aurora needs in her life to be happy. For the first time in her life, she “does not feel alone.”
Similarly, Aurora has a much more cynical viewpoint about the Homestead company and the Avalon. At the beginning of the story, she sees her fellow passengers as zeroes on Homestead’s checklist. By the end, she will open up and learn to empathize with the people around her.
Foils and Mentors
In both movies, the main couple finds themselves trapped with characters who serve as foils and mentors to the protagonist and love interest. These characters help provide the message of the story and ground the heroes of it.
Android Arthur serves as a friend to both Aurora and Jim. Arthur helps Jim realize what is going on early on. He becomes the listener and dispenser of simplistic advice. Arthur’s advice also becomes part of aurora’s final coda. The film does not delve as deeply into his relationship with Aurora, as she does not contrast Arthur as much.
When the truth is revealed about Jim’s actions, Arthur becomes like the child in the middle of a bitter divorce. Since the two humans cannot talk to anybody, they must talk to Arthur. Besides this, Arthur does not serve many other purposes.
Gus Mancuso (Lawrence Fishburne) is a flight deck chief. He gets woken up about three quarters of the way through the movie. Gus’s role in the story is to give Jim and Aurora the emotional and physical tools they need to save the day. In a making of featurette, Fishburne describes his character as a father figure to Jim and Aurora.
Gus also serves as a sort of conscience for the film. When he discovers Jim’s disruption of Aurora’s pod, he does not condemn Jim’s actions and keeps going. Gus also justifies them to Aurora. He describes Jim as a drowning man who will pull somebody under. Gus also calls Jim “the lucky son of a bitch” to be trapped on a ship with Aurora.
The audience does not get to know much about Gus, as his purpose is to help out the heroes than die. This serves to demonstrate the escalation of the story and stakes. However, it also makes him serve less of a purpose as a character and more of a purpose as a plot device. The original screenplay delved much deeper into the character, who had lived a 600-year history as a flight deck chief. He also dies before being able to fill Aurora and Jim in, leaving them to figure out how to save the day.
After getting sucked into a never-ending time loop, wedding guest Nyles (Andy Samberg) and bridesmaid Sarah (Cristin Milioti) must relive the same unsatisfying wedding day over and over again.
Palm Springs began as a much lower budget screenplay by Andy Siara. At first, Siara imagined it as more of a small Leaving Las Vegas (1995) type drama. Over a five-year process, Siara developed the script with director and fellow classmate at the American film institute Max Barbakow. Andy Samberg liked the screenplay and became the film’s producer with his Lonely Island collaborators Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer.
Aside from being well received, it became the highest sale of any film at the Sundance film festival when Hulu bought it.
Both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes gave Palm Springs mostly positive reviews from both critics and audiences (with a slightly lower score from audiences). Unlike the lukewarm reception of Passengers, most people seemed to like the style and storytelling of Palm Springs.
Unlike Passengers, the characters in Palm Springs begin the story as less than noble characters who need to learn a lesson. None of the protagonists start the story as heroic and almost all of them commit selfish or morally ambiguous acts throughout the story. Almost all of them have secrets that reveal a dark side. In the case of Palm Springs, the movie knows that these actions are wrong or questionable and portrays them as such.
Palm Springs also allows the audience to discover the story in a dramatic and cinematic way. Whenever mentioning an event in the past, the film will flashback to that scene rather than just explaining it in exposition.
The World of the Film
Set in the desert landscape of Palm Springs, Palm Springs seems to take place in a fairly grounded and believable (albeit comically heightened) world except for the fantastical elements. These elements include time loop occurs in a cave that opens up every day after an earthquake and the lead couple seeing dinosaurs in the desert.
Complacent, Nyles has developed a care-free lifestyle after being stuck in this world for so long. In the world the world, he has developed a code for how he lives (do as little as possible, don’t hurt anybody, experience little pain). He does not know how to live outside of it and barely remembers his past life. Over the course of the story, he will outgrow his complacency and decide to take a chance with Sarah.
On top of all this, Nyles has also come to the wedding with his neurotic girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who he knows will end up sleeping with wedding officiant Trevor (Chris Pang). This coupled with the frustrations in their relationship has made Nyles apathetic to their doomed relationship.
When given the chance to leave, he instead asks Sarah to stay. Sarah refuses, forcing Nyles to choose between the comfort of his old life and her. When he realizes that he wants to be with Sarah, he races to see her at the cave.
In the story, Nyles claims that he and Sarah have never slept together. However, Nyles eventually reveals that he slept with Sarah multiple times. All it required was for him to get her out of an embarrassing wedding speech. This leads to Sarah leaving Nyles for a while and him having to rethink his own feelings for her. This causes him to realize how much he actually cares about her.
The Love Interest
Like Nyles, Sarah turns out to be more troubled than initially expected. The sister of the bride, she is drinking too much wine at the wedding. At the beginning of the story, she is the black sheep of her family (she “screws around and drinks too much”). She cannot even give a speech at her sister’s wedding.
Unlike Nyles, Sarah is more driven and determined to escape her situation. She becomes the real hero of the story and ends up figuring out how to get out of the time loop. She also ends up solving many of Nyles’ problems within the world by confronting both Nyles and his enemies.
At the end of the story, she decides to do the selfless thing and get the both of them out of the time loop by blowing them up as they go through the time loop. She previously tested this with a goat and does not know if it will work. This leap of faith ultimately makes her a noble character that she was not at the beginning of the story.
Sarah has been sleeping with her sister’s fiancé Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). This gets revealed slowly over the course of the story. It begins with the audience hearing the shower running next to the room Sarah wakes up in every morning. The story reveals Abe coming out of the shower after Sarah actually sleeps with Nyles for the first time that is actually meaningful.
Her story concerns how she chooses to use this information. At first, she selfishly decides to tell her sister just to get out of the situation. Eventually, she decides to confront Abe about it and say this sexual relationship cannot continue any further. They both immediately regret it. In her final wedding speech, she tells him not to “fuck this up.” Over the course of the story, Sarah has realized how hurtful her actions truly are and decides to grow based on them.
Foils and Mentors
Palm Springs features foils for both the protagonist and the love interest. This happens because both characters have a lesson to learn on their own.
In this film, Nyles’s foil is Roy (J.K. Simmons), who he trapped in this world. Enraged by his new existence, he has murdered Nyles multiple times in this world. The reason Sarah gets trapped in the world happens partially because Roy comes hunting for Nyles at the cave.
Roy’s arc comes from learning about the pain he actually causes Nyles. This occurs when Sarah hits him with a car, allowing him to feel the same pain he put Nyles through. The experience allows Roy to reconcile his own anger towards Nyles and experience some emotional closure.
Roy is revealed to be a family man living in Irvine, which the film portrays as blissful paradise compared to the lonely desert of Palm Springs. In this scene, Roy dispenses advice about being happy in life and “finding your Irvine.” This sequence serves to prove that Nyles can find happiness and love in life.
Sarah’s foil is her little sister Tala (Camila Mendes), the bride at the wedding. The film presents her as one of few selfless characters. The family sees Tala as the family’s great success story, sharply contrasting their feelings for the disappointing Sarah. Whenever Sarah leaves, the family says it’s because the day did not focus on her. Over the course of the story, Sarah must learn how to become a more selfless person like Tala.
At the end of the story, Sarah gives the wedding speech, saying that she will always be learning from Tala. This scene demonstrates how much Sarah has grown and learned from her to become a better person.
In both the films, there is a very similar story structure. However, Palm Springs creates a more engaging and understandable narrative than Passengers, allowing it to be more successful in many ways. The stronger character arcs and clearer intentions of Palm Springs ultimately make it come alive as a more satisfying story.