"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Monday, January 9, 2017


Augustine wrote that Christians are ideally in the world but not of it. The fallen world is not the Christian’s true home. For the 5000 (plus crew) prospective colonists hibernating aboard a mammoth spaceship in the film, Passengers (2016), the planet Earth was presumably not their true home—or maybe that home was becoming climatically rather untenable and the 5000 were lucky souls heading for a new, unspoiled home. In any event, the film’s central paradigm can be characterized as “travel to” and “end-point.” That is to say, means and end characterize this picture at a basic level. The film is particularly interesting at this level in that so much value is found to reside in the means even as the end is still held out as being of great value.
For Aurora Lane, intentionally woken by Jim Preston with 89 more years to go on the trip, Earth had not been home in the sense that home is where love has been found. For her, home was mobile—moving through space at half light-speed—for she found love with Jim in spite of the fact that he had deprived her of living to see the end-point, the colony-planet. In refusing Jim’s new-found way of putting her back to sleep so she could wake again just four months before the end of the voyage, Aurora must have realized that she had found her home with Jim traveling through space. With plentiful food and drink, and no need even of money, Aurora and Jim faced a downside only in the possibility of encroaching loneliness. Headless waiters and a bottomless bartender—all robots—could not be said to give rise to any viable sense of community.

It is strange, therefore, that 89 years later, at the end of the voyage, the awakened crew and passengers do not encounter any offspring having been made out of Jim and Aurora’s love. The couple having realized that they would not live to see the new world, would they not have naturally wanted to have children who would have a chance of seeing the prospective paradise? It seems to me that the screenwriter did not think out the consequences of the couple’s decision far enough in this respect. The awakened passengers and crew should have come upon both trees and the grown children whose entire life had been in space.

In spite of having only each other, perhaps Aurora and Jim relish the peace that can be so compromised in a community (imaging having an apartment complex all to yourself!) and the freedom from the insecurity of want—two assets that could only be found during the journey. The spectacular views of space are also worthy (although it is difficult even to imagine a ship of such material that could withstand such a close pass to a sun). Yet, even so, how difficult it is for us—the audience—to understand why Aurora and Jim could possibly come to prefer a life spent entirely en route, on transportation. We are so used to being goal-oriented, teleological beings that we miss the sheer possibility that the journey itself might constitute a full life worth living.

Abstractly stated, we are so used to relegating means to an end as long at the end is viable that we have great trouble enjoying the means apart from the end. As long as the end stands a chance of being realizable, we cannot ignore it and thus fully rest content along the way.

The ability to reason about means and ends is a virtue.[1] Interestingly, virtuous actions “may be pursued ‘instrumentally’ but must be done ‘for their own sake.’ . . . They must be ends in themselves. . . . Actions truly expressive of the virtues are actions in which the means are prized at least as much as the extrinsic ends to which they are directed. . . . The telos, the best life for human beings to live, is an inclusive end constituted in large part by virtuous activity.”[2] In other words, virtues are both means and ends. A person should value acting virtuously for itself, rather than merely as a means to an end. While not a virtue-ethics guy, Kant uses this characterization in Critique of Practical Reason to claim that human beings should be valued as ends in themselves, rather than merely as means to other ends (e.g., manipulated). Can a boss ever push his use of his subordinates for his own ends sufficiently out of his mind to value those people as ends in themselves—as having inherent value?

The space voyage in the film is shown at first as only a means to a distinctly different end, the colony. Yet by the story’s end, the spaceship comes to be an end in itself too. Due to the length of the trip and the appreciably shorter human lifespan, Jim and Aurora find value in the means not as a means, but only as an end in itself.  Yet as human beings, could they ever come to disconnecting the spaceship from awareness of its end? Could Jim and Aurora ever feel a sense of ease on board without the sense that they have lost or given up the spaceship as a means? For the remainder of their lives, the colony is ahead of them. Is it even possible that two human beings could become oblivious to this fact?

Here on Earth, the Christmas season is so oriented to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that it is scarcely imaginable that the festive atmosphere during the first three weeks of December could be chosen over Christmas itself. I suspect that more adults like Aurora and Jim, being without family, would prefer the season over the holiday itself—even opting out of it. Yet can a person come to enjoy a Christmas show or attend a Christmas party without having in mind the “not yetness” and the “betterness” of Christmas itself? What if the experience with friends at the Christmas Party two weeks before the actual holiday is better than the saccharine day itself? Can the experience ever hope to get its due regard and esteem for its own sake even as it is regarded as a means?

1. Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996): 24.
2. Ibid., p. 25.