Caution: spoilers abound from this point onwards for two relatively recent science fiction stories: last December’s Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt; and the new Overwatch animated short that reveals the backstory of popular character Mei.
Both of these films ostensibly tell the same story, of a stranded engineer or scientist, left completely alone and isolated by a malfunction in a suspended animation chamber, who needs to perform some emergency repairs in order to achieve a noble goal.
The way both stories play out, though, differs wildly, to the point that you could almost say that Mei’s story effectively takes the Passengers formula, and fixes its inherent flaws.
Passengers had promise. With a slightly different structure and some rearranged plot points, it could have been a really enjoyable movie. It featured two of Hollywood’s hottest stars in what plays out as a love story in space, so on paper, there’s not much here to find disagreeable (which is probably why Sony Pictures were so willing to throw money at this project).
The problem comes in the execution, which is problematic to say the least. The film wants us to root for this pair of almost literally star-crossed lovers as they overcome the challenges of life alone on a spacecraft, while solving the mystery of why the ship has started malfunctioning in new and unusual ways.
It’s hard to really get behind Chris Pratt’s character, though, as we watch him make the unquestionably immoral decision to purposefully wake up Jennifer Lawrence (these characters have names, but they’re not memorable enough to note) so that he can have her as his companion for all eternity, even though it means dooming her to a life of misery and isolation.
If there’s one thing that a romance really should have to endure, it’s one person deliberately crushing the dreams of another, forcing her to die slowly of old age, all alone in the emptiness of space, just so that he can essentially trick her into falling in love with him.
People like to say that Beauty and the Beast is a movie about Stockholm Syndrome, but this takes the cake.
So what does Mei’s animated short, Rise and Shine, do that fixes the problem?
Simple: ditch the creepy stalker love story in favor of a plucky hero who faces adversity and isolation like a champion, overcomes a difficult situation, and manages to save the day.
This animated short lacks something of an ending – it’s designed, after all, as a prologue to the game Overwatch, and as such it ends on a cliffhanger. The story, though, of a scientist left in suspended animation for years too long as all of her colleagues and companions die in their pods, perfectly mirrors Passengers while having a better focus on the problems at hand.
In Passengers, the central conflict comes from a series of malfunctions aboard the characters’ spaceship that is almost pushed to the side as Chris Pratt goes about his creepy stalker murder plans, followed by a year of keeping this a secret while he seduces his victim.
In Overwatch, the conflict comes from malfunctioning equipment and a damaged research tower. Mei then instantly gets to work actually fixing the problems, before setting off on an adventure to try and make some good come out of the untimely deaths of all of her friends.
Suspended animation fail. Chris Pratt says, time to murder Jennifer Lawrence while still getting to have sex with her regularly for eighty years. Mei says, time to try and turn this horrible tragedy into some kind of positive through the powers of scientific research.
The main difference here is in character motivation, and it makes a big difference. Mei is instantly likeable not just because she’s cute and well-animated, but because she wants to do the right thing. It almost feels like the creative team behind Passengers thought that audiences would automatically forgive Chris Pratt of his crimes simply because he’s Chris Pratt – someone that charming and handsome couldn’t possibly be a bad guy, no matter how cruel he is to Jennifer Lawrence.
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s this: a good premise can be ruined by bad character writing. There’s a lot that Passengers could have done with its core concept, had the movie not made Chris Pratt’s character a creepy weirdo stalker. That was a story choice that somebody made, and it rubs up against the cutesy romantic tone of the rest of the film in an incongruous manner.
Rise and Shine proves that any story can be great if it’s told in the right way, and if we’re given a reason to care about the main character and want to see her succeed.
It also proves that Mei is the best character in Overwatch, no matter how many gorillas, cowboys, and cyborgs are running around.
Yes, Mei is the best. If you disagree, that’s fine, but you’re obviously wrong.