Passengers posits that rousing a space crew member early from a suspended state is tantamount to murder. How on earth might that be true?

In our ‘Oh, Really’  feature, the Biederman Blog’s editors and alumni— voracious consumers of trendy matters — cast a curious, skeptical, fun and smart end-of-the-week eye on popular culture and its entertaining products, sharing their keen observations about legal matters these raise.

In the movie Passengers,  travelers on a swanky spaceship must trek for 120 years to reach and colonize Homestead II, a planet in a distant galaxy. To survive their journey, they’re all put into a suspended state, to be awakened just months before reaching their destination. But when the ship veers through an asteroid belt, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) accidentally awakens only 30 years into the trip. He grows depressed and isolated, confronting his  certain death in the 90 years before he reaches his planned new home.

Then, he notices Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in her suspension pod. He falls for her. He struggles with his choice but wakes her, also nine decades too soon. When conscious, she is devastated that she will die before anyone else aboard besides Jim awakens, especially because she planned to stay only briefly on Homestead II before returning to Earth to write a book about her experiences.

Jim leads her to believe her rousing to consciousness was an accident. They grow close. Then an android, the bartender at one of the couple’s favorite spots on the ship, spills the beans to Aurora: Her amorous interest intentionally woke the sleeping beauty.

When another crew member Gus (Laurence Fishburne), a Chief Deck Officer, is accidentally awakened, Aurora fights with Jim. She insists to Gus that Jim has murdered her. Did he?  This flick raises an ethical or moral dilemma. But, really, murder? What might be legal considerations for such a claim, other than an angry lover’s recriminations about how a partner may have affected her longevity?

Prosecutorial options

Imagine if an able, experienced prosecutor or grand juros were beamed into the Passengers’ plot. Could Jim be charged with murder in the first degree? Does he display premeditation? He’s clearly got a lot of time on his hands, a year or so at least, as he floats around the cosmos, and he ponders before tinkering with Aurora’s pod to bring her around.

Or maybe this was crime of passion? The movie shows how hard his life is to live alone, and Aurora’s certainly an  infatuation.  He agonizes over the choice to wake her, and knows his actions’ consequences. But it become s an irresistible impulse for him, and he “snaps.” Is this murder in the second degree? How about manslaughter?

Or maybe Jim would be indicted on a charge of criminal negligence or reckless endangerment? Aspiring lawyers certaintly recognize these actions, so common they’re likely topics on the Bar exam, right?

An analogy to crimes with contagions

Let’s compare Aurora’s contention that Jim has inflicted on her a virtual death sentence, and consider how California looks at those who knowingly spread deadly diseases, notably HIV-AIDS. In California, it can be a felony to intentionally engage in unprotected sex to try to infect partners,  if you know you are HIV positive and fail to disclose this to them.

Lawmakers  imposed these stern penalties during the deadly AIDS epidemic. But now that anti-virals and other therapies have made AIDS a chronic rather than typically a fatal condition, some legislators want to downgrade the contagions’ crime to a misdemeanor.

That hasn’t happened yet. And the law still considers how bad acts by others affect how victims might have lived their life. For Aurora, Jim’s actions could be shown to have shortened her life—by at least the 250 years she would have been in suspension Jim intentionally exposed Aurora to a slow death for which she had not planned.

*Spoiler alert*

Perhaps there is a defense for Jim. The movie’s plot thickens, with the audience learning later that the asteroid field that woke Jim up had wreaked havoc on the ship. Without Aurora’s help to fix the vessel, it would have crashed, killing all the suspended passengers and crew, and Aurora and Jim, too.

So in the end, waking her was necessary. It was the lesser of two evils. And in classic silver screen fashion, it becomes unlikely for Jim to face any criminal charges. That’s because he and Aurora live happily ever after. They are, of course, dead and long gone before the ship reaches its elysian fields and all the others aboard regain consciousness.

Love conquers all, even murder. But maybe not a clunky plot that leads to lots of bad reviews, and a box office bomb.