Back in 1979, Alien presented us with a strikingly efficient tagline: "In space no one can hear you scream." The words hint at the terror to come, but they also suggest abject loneliness. It's a big universe out there, and floating out in the middle of it can create some severe isolation anxiety.
Passengers, the new romantic space thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, is no Alien. There's no slimy silver-and-black monster dripping acid through the spaceship floors. But the film, uneven as it is, fits neatly into the sci-fi tradition of intergalactic solitude. It reminds us that nobody really wants to live alone, much less die that way.
"There's a reason solitary confinement is the maximum punishment we give to our prisoners," Pratt says by phone. "Being cut off from interpersonal connection is a form of torture. That's something the movie deals with, especially in the first act."
That's when a transport craft malfunctions en route to a distant space colony, waking Pratt's Jim Preston from his sleep chamber 90 years ahead of schedule. He wanders the ship, including the sleek, shopping mall-like grand concourse. He grows a beard. He makes a friend of sorts in an android bartender, played by Michael Sheen, who presides over a glowing, cavernous space that feels like the Overlook Hotel spot where Jack Torrance bends Lloyd's ear in The Shining.
But the loneliness is too much — until another passenger, played by Lawrence, also awakens. They fall in love, even as Jim harbors a dark, selfish secret.
Loneliness holds a special place in sci-fi and fantasy. Watching the original Twilight Zone series recently (it's out on Blu-ray now), I noticed how many episodes deal with the utter terror of being and staying alone. In the very first episode of the series, "Where is Everybody?" a man wanders an unpopulated small town. He soon starts to go mad. Later in that first season, Burgess Meredith's eccentric bookworm realizes he's the lone survivor of a nuclear blast, and he's ready to kill himself until he finds the remains of the public library. (48-year-old spoiler alert: He breaks his glasses.)
Occasionally you'll find a sci-fi hero who deals with loneliness just fine. In 2015's The Martian, Matt Damon gets stranded on the red planet. But he's a botanist, and he grows potatoes to stay alive, glibly describing his ingenuity for the folks back home and in the movie theater. Lonely doesn't necessarily mean quiet or humble.
But it usually does mean dread. Just ask Major Tom, the space voyager of David Bowie's "Space Oddity": "For here/Am I sitting in a tin can/Far above the world/Planet Earth is blue/And there's nothing I can do."
We'll leave the last word for Lawrence, who seems to do a remarkable job living her real life in the lonely fisheye of fame.
"One of the things the movie says is that we do need people," Lawrence says. "We need that interpersonal connection."