Jon Spaihts’ screenplay for Passengers attracted Hollywood’s interest for many years, acquired a huge fan base, and became a Black List hit as one of the industry’s best unproduced scripts. Spaihts has garnered an enviable reputation as a working writer and producer of intelligent, character-driven science fiction with produced titles that include The Darkest Hour and director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Most recently, he shared writing credit on Marvel’s critical and box office hit, Doctor Strange. His upcoming films include The Mummy, an adaptation of the seminal science-fiction novel The Forever War, and a Van Helsing reboot he’s co-writing with Eric Heisserer.
At the film’s recent press day, Collider had the opportunity to sit down with Spaihts at a science panel where he spoke about the current technologies being developed to make deep space travel a reality and revealed some of the actual technology featured in the movie. Here are eight things to know about the science behind Passengers and what it’s like trying to build a futuristic world that requires pushing past the limits of current technology:
While writing the script, Spaihts drew on real-world science for inspiration that ranged from exoplanet science to space travel and colonization.
JON SPAIHTS: There’s a lot of prototyping and forward-looking design in space travel, all of which underlay the notion. We’re seeing the movement of private companies into the exploration of space. I postulated a company called the Homestead Company that would find, groom, and then ultimately populate exoplanets as colonies. That’s imagining a company that does precisely this work at a more advanced level, that locates planets in the habitable range around a star with the right chemical composition and protective Van Allen Belt, and then pioneers them. Ideally, you want a planet like Homestead II, which has a chemical composition extremely similar to Earth but not a biosphere yet. It’s simply a place where the magic didn’t happen or barely happened. Then, you seed that planet from Earth with Earth life. The reason the Homestead II marketing you see in the film looks a lot like Earth is because it is essentially a parallel Earth. That is, a fertile but ungerminated Earth-like world that has been seeded with Earth life.
The Avalon, the film’s badass luxury spaceship that’s taking passengers on a 120-year journey to a new planet, exists within the realm of the imaginatively possible.
SPAIHTS: There is no warp drive, hyperspace or artificial gravity. It runs on fusion. It is propelled by a constant thrust ion drive and probably gets up to high speed with the aid of some booster or launcher that lobs it out to get it moving. But then, after that, it’s a fractional G constant thrust ion drive. It has a kind of meteor screen at the front which is probably electromagnetic, but I imagine it has some aspects of a Bussard ramjet, meaning it is collecting space gas as it flies for fusant and for ion propellant. It’s actually harvesting mass and it solves the propellant problem in that way by harvesting the trace quantities of space dust and gas that exist everywhere.
Manned missions to deep space present special challenges when it comes to keeping space travelers in a hibernation-like state during a long-duration flight. Sometimes the dramatic requirements of the film trumped hard science.
SPAIHTS: I looked at a lot of ways of potentially putting people to sleep for space, and there, as in many places in sci-fi screenwriting, I ran into tensions between the dramatic requirements of the film and hard science. Our best bet for putting people down right now would be either an extreme therapeutic hypothermia or a freezing process coupled with the development of some perfect cell-by-cell antifreeze to prevent ice crystal rupture of tissue. None of those things are real sexy to wake up from. None of those are states in which Sleeping Beauty in her bed would look particularly gorgeous. The hibernation in this movie is a little more magical just because we needed people to be cute in those pods. People floating in a sea of sludge, who are frozen like popsicles, are a little less romantic.
Spaihts enjoyed dreaming up this world and then seeing it become a reality as the film’s director, actors and creative team collaborated to bring it to life and realize the vision.
SPAIHTS: One of the things I love about film is that film as a document is a piece of art far too large for any one artist to have created. You get actors coming in to enact and to cultivate and to protect a particular character for each actor. They guard and imagine that character and give them a rich internal life in a way that I as a writer could not do for each one of them. Likewise, on down the line, every aspect from the design of the sets to the design of the costumes, the movement of the action and stunts in the film, the lighting and the lensing, the score, the sound design, the whole thing, an army of artists comes in and they help realize the vision. That also means that you invariably and inevitably, even as the director or a producer, lose control and sacrifice control because you are collaborating with a bunch of other people. It means that they’ll bring delightful surprises to you, and it also means that they may break things that you thought were important. Part of the filmmaking process is a dialogue. I was the diehard science nerd in the production saying, “We’re going to need more counter-rotating mass to stop the spin of the ship. Can I get some attitude jets in this?” You win some arguments and you lose some arguments. On the whole, we kept a pretty nice high bar for the basics of space travel. Everyone really leaned into that enterprise, trying to make it inspiring and realistic at the same time.