'Passengers' a parable about the risks of space travel and the ethics of tech

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Elon Musk and Richard Branson, please call your offices — or report to the nearest movie theater.

When weighing the plot of the new movie "Passengers," it's virtually impossible not to consider the broader context of humanity's growing reliance on technology, society's deepening interest in commercial space travel — and the Herculean task facing billionaires pioneering the development of the modern era's space race.

"Passengers," in which two space travelers (played by A-listers Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) aboard an intergalactic ship with about 5,000 other voyagers awaken far too early, may have invented its own genre that might be called science-fiction romantic comedy.

It takes place against a backdrop of a commercial space industry that's entering hyper drive, allowing citizens to ponder the concept of journeying to another planet with the facility of catching a flight or hopping on a cruise.

With vast sums being poured into space exploration — the Space Foundation estimates at least $120 billion was devoted to commercial space travel in 2015 — the movie may provoke some thought among those looking to bolt Earth for greener planetary pastures.

Using a cascading series of technology shortcomings and catastrophic failures, "Passengers" pointedly challenges the premise behind commercial space travel, which Virgin Galactic delineates as "democratizing access to space for the benefit of life on Earth."

'The insufficiency of things'

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In the process, "Passengers" plays with various themes that could almost be considered allegorical — or at least function as a cautionary tale for the nascent space travel industry. At the heart of the plot is how technology, and trusting those who design it, can fail humans when they need it most, while creating unexpected moral quandaries, a "Passengers'" screenwriter explained to CNBC in a recent interview.

"You're definitely seeing a parable about the insufficiency of things," said Jon Spaihts, who also penned the scripts to 2012's "Prometheus" and Marvel's "Doctor Strange" — one of the year's biggest hits.

"The luxury or technical stuff that modernity brings that makes people comfortable … it's seemingly magical technology" yet none of it is really sufficient to fill the needs of human desire, he said.

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In "Passengers," the endless expanse of outer space becomes a metaphor for human alienation, and human loneliness becomes the fulcrum of a controversial plot twist that propels the narrative toward its conclusion.

The circumstances facing the lead characters in "Passengers" underscore how all the advantages of automation lead us to make sometimes fateful decisions that inevitably come back to haunt — regardless of how seamless they may appear at the point of inception.

Spaihts told CNBC he conceptualized the film primarily as a "love story" but also as "a story of survival and a predicament movie … and the moral quandary at the heart of it."

The spaceship ferrying "Passengers"' 5,000-strong cargo is essentially "a colonial enterprise underwritten by a big corporation," Spaihts told CNBC — virtually identical to SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. These companies "give us extraordinary new options at our fingertips, but for a price. There are strings attached to that dream," the writer said.

According to Spaihts, one of the movie's bright spots should allay the growing fear of artificial intelligence. Amid a debate about whether the machines will conquer humanity, the writer argued that "Passengers" shows that in some regards, there's really no such animal as AI.

"It's just human intelligence encapsulated in a machine," Spaihts told CNBC, adding that the movie's characters ultimately require human ingenuity to extricate them from their predicament despite the plethora of automation sustaining them.

A machine "can't have any more intelligence than we give it. There's something fundamental about [humans] that won't be replaced anytime soon by a machine," he added.