The Broken Science of "Passengers"
If you don't like spoilers then stop reading now because in order to discuss some of the problems I see with the science in "Passengers" starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence I have to talk about the details of the movie.

You can read my review of "Passengers" on SF-Fandom or if you want another take where I include some of the scientific problems, you can check out my review of "Passengers" on A1 Movie Reviews.

Okay, you have had enough warning about ...


The premise of the starship Avalon is that it is a massive luxury liner that doubles as a hibernation ship. The 5200+ crew and passengers on the ship "sleep" in pods that are contained in huge warehouse compartments. The movie does not include much in the way of background or technical information. The production designs by Guy Hendrix Dyas are impressive, artistic, and extravagant. They are almost exactly what we have come to expect in an age where humans so often meet aliens in vast starships that make generous use of space. These immense spaceship designs are really inefficient, at least in that no one explains why we need to build cavernous starships where people can "fall" hundreds or thousands of feet (not that anyone does in "Passengers").

The vaulted pod chambers are inexplicably huge, implying that a lot of energy is wasted on pushing huge bulkheads through space. On the other hand, the movie illustrates the fact that the ship carries replacement parts for almost everything, and Chris Pratt spends some time opening hidden panels and drawers in just about every location. So maybe the massive bulkheads are hiding spare parts and supplies but they don't convince me they have to be built that way.

Somehow the ship is able to speed up to 50% of the speed of light. It makes the majority of its journey at this pace, and that is reasonable as far as it goes for story telling. But moving that much mass (the ship is over 1,000 meters long) takes far more energy than they imply is available. The ship's propulsion system is poorly explained as the movie is not about the technology but about the people who are using it. The technology is just there and it works like magic.

That is where the alleged faithfulness to science I have read about on other sites begins to break down. Anyone who has watched Michio Kaku's imaginative shows on how we might construct science fiction gadgets knows that nothing really comes out the way we think it should, so you have to take all science fiction technology with a grain of salt. Sometimes, like Star Trek's transporter beam, things are included just to save time and production costs.

Even so, the movie pauses about one third of the way through the ship's journey to have it do a sling shot maneuver around the star Arcturus. We only find out later that the ship is moving at 50% of the speed of light, and one could argue that the sling shot maneuver was necessary to increase the speed. However, unless the ship is made of such super lightweight material that it weighs almost nothing -- well, even then I don't think the maneuver is possible, not as depicted.

The maneuver gives the audience an opportunity to gape at a roaring star's surface up front alongside the actors (who were probably just looking at a green screen). The sequence is amazing and the special effect deserves a huge round of applause. But it's not scientifically plausible according to what we know about the way the universe works today.

Moving on, the ship is designed to rotate as it travels through space, creating artificial gravity for the hibernating passengers and crew alongside a virtual army of robots and mechanisms that implausibly continue to function continuously for 120 years. The ship is designed to monitor and repair itself continually so there must be shops or special devices that repair or replace the little robots that scurry around the ship. But why do all these systems have to be functioning during the journey?

Well, we can explain some of the activity away by saying these systems "wake up" with the people. So when Chris Pratt's pod is accidentally opened 90 years early the ship begins to respond to his activity by turning on necessary systems. This seems to be incredibly wasteful of resources. In a closed habitat it's hard to imagine the ship being able to recycle everything for nearly 100 years. That implies near-perfect efficiency, in which case, why are people colonizing distant planets? Why not just live in space habitats?

We don't see the ship start its journey so we don't know what happens to everything when it's not spinning. The long tubular shape of the vessel implies that "up" is always the central axis and never the front end of the ship. The habitat structures do not look like they can reposition themselves during acceleration or deceleration so that everything remains properly oriented within the living modules. So that's a problem.

But even worse is the scene where the artificial gravity "fails" during mid-flight. Up until this point the audience is led to believe that the ship's spinning motion creates artificial gravity, which essentially flings everyone and everything inside the ship away from the central axis. The ship's modules act like the floor or ground and prevent stuff from flying out into space. Once set into spin motion the ship should continue spinning constantly. There is really nothing to slow down the spin, or to speed it up. There is a special shield that prevents debris from affecting the vessel's motion. It just blasts through everything that gets in its way.

So why does the artificial gravity fail when other power systems blow out temporarily? That just makes no sense.

The power failures are attributed to an accident, the same accident (in fact) that woke Jim Preston (Pratt). The ship tried to blast its way through something that was more stubborn than the shield and a piece of space rock got through. How the ship managed to stay pressurized is not explained. Presumably bulkheads were sealed off, compartments were closed, etc. When the problem is finally diagnosed one room is left with a couple of gaping holes leading into space. Apparently the ship's designers didn't think to create some sort of self-healing skin or to use Star Trek like shield generators to keep the atmosphere from escaping.

The size of the debris and the fact it was moving (relative to the motion of the ship) fast enough to blow through many bulkheads suggest an immense amount of energy was unleashed. Why didn't the ship explode? They don't explain that.

A critical component is damaged, leading to the events that comprise the story that unfolds throughout the movie. That's okay, everything has to have a cause. But this critical component leads to a BIG problem and the self-diagnosing, self-repairing ship fails to identify the problem, let alone attempt to fix it. Once Pratt's character sees what is wrong he grabs the right part and makes a quick replacement (although that was not the only thing damaged in the accident by any means). What incredible luck the universe has, to be able to hit the exact component that the ship can neither monitor nor repair with pinpoint precision. The mind boggles.

If NASA were to design the ship they would build in redundancies with redundant features, so I guess we can conclude that Avalon is a Titanic class project, completely designed and built by greedy commercial interests who believe in the infallibility of their technology. Their technology is so arrogantly infallible that when Jim Preston informs the ship that his pod malfunctioned and he woke up early, it informs him that is not possible without offering to check it for him.

Maybe that was because the ship's systems were damaged, but a redundant design would, theoretically, have a better chance of checking an unlikely passenger's report than a design so assured of its infallibility there is no fallback system.

The ship implausibly allows Jim to send a video mail back to Earth. He, having been prepped for this journey at some special facility, is completely clueless about how long it will take for Earth to receive his message and reply. The system does not advise him of the length of time before he records the message, much less how much the message will cost him. He learns these things after the fact, so maybe deregulation is not such a good thing after all.

The paradox of the computer systems is that they are dumber than the Google Assistant and Siri even though they are supposed to be the uber-advanced descendants of today's personal assistant technology. The ship travels on its merry way almost inviting disaster because no one thought to include an emergency wake-up system for the crew, much less installing a special backup system for pods that malfunction. And while the movie clears up some of the mystery by pointing out that all the sleepers were subjected to lengthy procedures at the beginning of the journey (making it impossible to restore themselves to hibernation) there is, in fact, a medical bay with a device that can do just that.

Only one such miracle cure machine exists on this ship with over 5,000 people. Is this megarich corporation that makes quadrillions of credits on its colonization projects so cheap it can only afford one bed for the medical bay? It's no wonder the ship malfunctioned and had a meltdown in space. It was clearly built to substandard specifications.

And yet it manages to cross about 60 light-years of space while making impossible maneuvers and failing to diagnose and repair itself properly. Good thing someone woke up early because otherwise no one would make it to the new colony world, not even the crew who apparently have done this kind of trip before.
Hmm, if the ship is spinning about an axis parallel to it direction of motion, and bends its course during the slingshot maneuver, then I think the ship should start precessing about some new axis. That would make the gravity weird and mess with trying to travel in a straight line.

Or is the ship rotating perpendicular to its direction of motion (like a top moving sideways)?
Think of how an arrow spins as it flies through the air. This video demonstrates. Skip ahead to about 2:00 to see it in slow motion.

Watch What arrow vanes spin faster 1200 FPS from YouTube
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SF-Fandom reserves the right to remove inappropriate video content from its discussions. YouTube may remove the video from its service without notification.
Okay, so its rotation axis is parallel to the direction of flight. That sets up perpendicular torques if you try to turn it, making it point somewhere other than where you want it to go. I suppose there is some combination of forces that will make it turn the way you want, but I'm not 100% sure of that.

Think of that simple experiment where you pick up the front end of your bicycle, get the wheel spinning, and turn the handle bars. What you find is that, besides it being hard to turn the handlebars, the whole bicycle tilts to one side. If you think of the rocket being the axle, attempting to turn it sideways will cause the nose to go up or down.
Yes, I agree that the spinning creates forces that have to be countered or managed in some fashion. Of course, we can assume that the ship's propulsion system activates as needed to correct the ship's attitude but that might not happen if systems are failing at random. On the other hand, on a ship that is designed to operate perfectly with no expectation of system failure, why is there a special "gravity drive"?

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