The Science Of ‘Passengers’ According To Screenwriter Jon Spaihts

Posted Tuesday, December 20th, 2016 08:54 pm GMT -4 by

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If you are going to write a sci-fi screenplay, it helps immensely if you know something about science. Okay, it helps if you know A LOT about science and that’s why movies like ‘The Martian’ work. If you can back up your themes with some scientific fact, then you are halfway to creating some good sci-fi. And that’s one advantage Jon Spaihts has as the scribe for ‘Passengers.’ See, Spaihts is a huge science nerd and with writing credits for such works as ‘The Darkest Hour,’ ‘Prometheus,’ Doctor Strange,’ ‘The Mummy,’ and the upcoming ‘Van Helsing’ project, he has become the go-to guy when it comes to writing genre films in Hollywood.

At a ‘Passengers’ press event, ScienceFiction.com had the opportunity to sit with Spaihts for a science panel about the film and the technology featured to make space travel in the film believable.

Regarding how the starship Avalon would realistically travel through space:

“There is no warp drive, hyperspace or artificial gravity. It runs on fusion. It is propelled by a constant thrust in drive and probably gets up to high speed with the aid of some booster or launcher that lobs it out to get it moving. But then, after that, it’s a fractional G constant thrust ion drive. It has a kind of meteor screen at the front which is probably electromagnetic, but I imagine it has some aspects of a Bussard ramjet, meaning it is collecting space gas as it flies for fusion and for ion propellant. It’s actually harvesting mass and it solves the propellant problem in that way by harvesting the trace quantities of space dust and gas that exist everywhere. Nothing like this has been made practically yet, but the ship exists within the realm of the imaginably possible.”

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Another piece of technology that features heavily in the film are the stasis pods where the travelers are hibernating in the film. While it may seem like the science for this process is still way off, it’s not as theoretical or far-fetched as one would think:

“I looked at a lot of ways of potentially putting people to sleep for space, and there, as in many places in sci-fi screenwriting, I ran into tensions between the dramatic requirements of the film and hard science. Our best bet for putting people down right now would be either an extreme therapeutic hypothermia or a freezing process coupled with the development of some perfect cell-by-cell antifreeze to prevent ice crystal rupture of tissue… We wanted to freeze atomic motion inside the capsule… None of those things are real sexy to wake up from. None of those are states in which Sleeping Beauty in her bed would look particularly gorgeous. The hibernation in this movie is a little more magical just because we needed people to be cute in those pods. People floating in a sea of sludge, who are frozen like popsicles, are a little less romantic.”

Currently, a company called Spaceworks is testing out stasis pods in hospitals with a process called targeted temperature management where bodies can be slowly cooled around 10 degrees, which slows the metabolic rate, and puts them into a temporary static state so the frozen sleeping ice princess imagery may actually become something that will eventually become realistic.

When asked if Spaihts had a specific planet in mind where the colonists were going he stated:

jon spaihts“I did investigate our general galactic neighborhood. Traveling at fractional light for 120 years you can’t actually get very far. It’s really just this basket of stars that they might be going to. We take a little bit of liberties in terms of how interesting things get outside the windows. There has to be some sort of launcher getting them started, because it can’t be a fractional G getting them up to half the speed of light in that amount of time. I had them slingshot past Arcturus. I had a general notion of where they might have found a habitable planet, maybe stretching a little bit how far they might have gone.”

‘Passengers’ is a visually beautiful film but look beyond what your eyes see and you’ll realize that travelling through space may not be as fantastical as the film may suggest.

‘Passengers’ will be in theaters nationwide on December 21.