Passengers and Bokeh: A Thematic Review (with partial spoiler alert)
Two futuristic fantasies: one high tech, taking place in an elaborate interstellar craft moving at half the speed of light on a 120-year mission to colonize another planet; the other stunningly low tech, filmed amid gorgeous Icelandic landscapes, with urban scenes shot at 3 a.m., during lengthy sunlit days, to make otherwise dense urban settings seem abandoned. Despite the different forms, the structural parallels are notable. A technical mishap (Passengers) and a cataclysmic event (Bokeh) places one or both partners in sudden isolation from the rest of the world. In Passengers, Jim (Chris Pratt) somehow awakens, while the remaining colonists are asleep for another 90 years. In Bokeh, Jenai (Maika Monroe) and Riley (Matt O'Leary), a vacationing couple on an island remote from home, suddenly discover that they are the only remaining humans.
After the initial shock, the characters in each movie confront profound practical and philosophical questions. Why did this happen? Is it possible to survive and have a meaningful life without other people? What is a meaningful life?
In both movies, the men view the predicament in simple terms. In Passengers, Jim determines that he can be fulfilled if joined by Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman who, with the help of an android bartender (Martin Sheen), he convinces himself he loves. In Bokeh, Riley holds similar views about Jenai, although her assessment is far more bleak. Although both movies project into the future, the gender roles are traditional. Following the initial shock, it's clear that the woman is the key, or barrier, to each man's fulfillment, with each film partly structured around boy chasing girl. The men are also presented as more adaptable, creatures: his sense of fulfillment depends only, and entirely, on her response, the singular factor over which he has the least control.
Bokeh is a photographic term. It means the blurry part of a photograph, which allows the sharpening of the foreground image. The metaphor works for both movies, and for life more generally. We tend to focus on what's before us, what seems important in the moment. Although rarely as dramatically as in such dystopia fantasies, the truth remains that our landscapes are constantly shifting. What we miss in the background at one moment can move to the foreground in the next. Even though we are prone to miss it, catching the outer edge of our peripheral vision is often crucial to our happiness, and perhaps even to our humanity.
If each man's fulfillment depends on that of the woman he loves, then Aurora Lane, Jim's love interest in Passengers, succeeds, whereas Jenai, Riley's lover in Bokeh, fails miserably, with tragic consequences. The comparison is ironic. Aurora Lane, the distraught passenger, has every reason to make Jim's life miserable. Although we can understand why he has done what he did, even in deep space, there's no escaping the gravity of his offense. Even the android manages to grasp this. To his credit, Jim does as well, and he struggles to make it right. Riley and Jenai, however, are both equal victims of circumstance. Neither is at fault. If Riley it to be faulted, it is only for his unerring desire to forge some semblance of a normal life in their bizarre new world. And yet it his personal mission to make things normal that frays their once intense connection.
Each movie briefly introduces a third, older male, character. In Passengers, Gus (Laurence Fishburn) heroically solves an immediate technical crisis, and in Bokeh, an older distressed man introduces an existential crisis of his own: What does it really mean to be with others? What does it mean to be truly alone? Riley begins to bury the man after he dies, leading Jenai to asks why. For her, Riley's response is disturbingly normal: it's what we do. The movies also play on the theme of light. And yet, despite the extended Icelandic hours, Bokeh's thematic exploration is far darker than Passengers' portrayal of deep space. For Jenai, everything is up for grabs, including assumptions about love and commitment to others. She truly is alone, and Riley will face the consequences as she redefines their fates.
The movies are of a pair. They ask many of the same questions. What makes them interesting is the profoundly different answers each gives.
As always, your comments are most welcome.