To describe Passengers as a profound love story that wrestles with some of life's greatest philosophical dilemmas while set in the vast landscape of space would only be a half truth. As Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) and Jim (Chris Pratt) — woken up 90 years too early en route to a distant new planet — spend the duration of the movie exploring the boundaries of their relationship with each other, and ultimately, with themselves, there is an integral third wheel to their intergalactic romance: Avalon, their magnificent spaceship.
The result of a resplendent patchwork of diverse and surprising influences, the Avalon was dreamed into existence over the course of just 10 weeks, a collaboration between production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, scriptwriter Jon Spaihts, and director Morten Tyldum. The Avalon redefines our understanding of what on-screen representations of space travel could and may one day entail.
So lifting up the celestial hood, let's take a closer look at the many varied influences that went into designing Passengers' stunning starship.
Acknowledging that the spacecraft they designed for Passengers would follow in a long, sacred tradition of spaceship design, Dyas dove headfirst into researching their rich on-screen history, which began with Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon back in 1902. Speaking to Space.com, Dyas revealed that he created a colossal 80-foot-long timeline plotting the full history of spacecraft within cinema, including both the good — and the not so good — designs since the concept of space exploration first exploded onto our screens.
Due to the nature of its function, the Avalon is by definition a hibernation starship; a vessel that's used to transport human cargo to its destination while in a state of deep, comatose dormancy. This puts it at the forefront of an impressive cannon of movies from the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey to Alien, Avatar, Moon, Planet of the Apes and Event Horizon. Counting some of the most iconic sci-fi spaceships as its peers, designing the Avalon was going to be no mean feat.
The real tension when designing the Avalon came with the notoriously difficult process of creating something that was simultaneously functional and aesthetically pleasing. With Tyldum telling Discover magazine that he wanted the Avalon to be scientifically correct, restricting it to Albert Einstein-endorsed sub-light-speed velocity on one hand, and scriptwriter Spaihts stating that 2001 and Andrei Tarkovsky's original Solaris were vital aesthetic muses for the story on the other, Dyas had to find a way to bring the two together.
The key to cracking this difficult conundrum? Nature. While pondering the design of the Avalon, Dyas looked outside and watched a sycamore seed fall from a tree. As it fell, it created a spiraling vortex, which was at once poignantly elegant and scientifically sound. The visually pleasing spinning motion could also, theoretically, create an artificial gravity chamber if utilized correctly within a spaceship.
While franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars never divulge exactly how their spaceships operate as self-sufficient havens of gravity, in Passengers the Avalon's spinning sycamore design assigns it to the more scientifically authentic spaceships seen in the likes of 2001, Interstellar and Rendezvous with Rama. Once they had settled on a scientifically sound skeleton, Dyas, Tyldum and Spaihts were able to extrapolate and embellish the overall aesthetic design of the Avalon, to magnificent effect.
Telling Space.com that he essentially approached the design of the Avalon as though he was designing an intergalactic cruise liner, Dyas managed to bridge the gap between a vessel of space travel and a vehicle of corporate profit. Consequently, each room within the Avalon has a distinct personality, texture and feel to it, synonymous with at once making the passengers (read, customers) feel comfortable while encouraging them to purchase goods.
Catering to more than 5,000 passengers, the Homestead Company, which owns the Avalon in Passengers, stands to make a lot of extra cash out of its human cargo during the post-hibernation four-month rehabilitation period. As such, Dyas designed the interior of the Avalon to include a giant shopping mall, a selection of restaurants to choose from should passengers wish to deviate from their allocated meals (as we see Jim and Aurora do on many occasions), an art deco bar, and numerous entertainment activity rooms.
Ingeniously, this means that once the passengers arrive on Homestead II, they will already be indebted to the company and consequently, once settled on the new planet, will have to work for prolonged periods of time to pay of their debts. In his interview with Discover, Tyldum said that this was not a new idea, but rather, something that immigrants to America in the 1800s experienced and a concept that lies at the core of most capitalist practices today.
The most luxurious passenger rooms on the Avalon, the Vienna Suite is reminiscent of a glamorous New York loft most of us could only dream of ever being able to afford. Measuring more than 1,800 square feet, the suite is spread over two floors and linked by an exquisite modern staircase that looks like an assortment of malleable piano keys contoured into wall.
The hovering bed, however, is really the centerpiece of the room. Combining comfort, function and extravagance, the cozy cot is surrounded by smart walls that allow the passengers to change their surroundings, simply by asking the walls to display a particular scene. With the opulent Vienna Suite clearly primed for the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, the floating bed reflects the kind of lavish luxury that only the 1% can afford.
The hibernation pod has been an essential design feature of many movie spaceships, especially those traversing their human cargo across great distances. However, the Passenger' hibernation bay had a design feature unlike any of its movie forebears. Just as the overall external design of the ship was influenced by observing nature with the falling of a sycamore seed, so the hibernation pods were also inspired by one of planet Earth's most natural gifts: trees.
Speaking to Architectural Digest, Dyas explained that a feature commonly overlooked by other sci-fi hibernation pods is the need for human beings to be exposed to sunlight. Consequently, he designed a veritable orchard of pod trees in which eight different cocoons were connected to a central trunk that in turn provided each pod with a halo of UV light.
However, the hibernation bay was not only inspired by scientific necessity. When interviewed by DailyGalaxy.com, Spaihts highlighted the need for a more superficial element to be included in their design. With Aurora essentially playing the role of Sleeping Beauty in Passengers, Spaihts wanted the pods to be created in such a way that the dormant passengers still looked beautiful to the external world:
With a robotic barman tending behind an impressively gaudy 1920s art deco-inspired bar, the Avalon's resident watering hole is the dramatic apex of where classic meets modern. Undoubtedly, however, the bar pays homage to one of cinema's most iconic lounges — the heavily underlit bar of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
Speaking with Space.com, Dyas emphasized that the relationship between Jim and A.I. barman Arthur (Michael Sheen) mirrored that of Jack Nicholson and the slick barman of the 1980 horror classic. Using this relationship as the starting point for the Passengers design process, Dyas essentially took the lush, deep tones of Kubrick's bar and made them "more glorious and more outrageously beautiful" than that of the original.
After a fruitless search all over Atlanta — where Passengers was filmed — for the perfect swimming pool, Dyas decided the production team needed to stop looking and instead design their own. Setting to work digging up the parking lot of the studio, the team managed to create a colossal Olympic-sized swimming pool in just under six weeks.
Keeping with the cruise ship aesthetic, the Passengers swimming pool would not look out of place in one of the more upmarket hotels of the sea. As Dyas told The Hollywood Reporter:
With the pool only being used by Aurora, Dyas wanted to add a more feminine element to its design. Consequently, the tank has a softer feel, employing a curvaceous shape with tasteful, gentle lighting and a classic gold and blue color palette.