Still from the movie Voyagers

Photo by Vlad Cioplea

What Voyagers teaches us about societal control

Returning to science fiction for the first time since the 2014 dystopian adventure Divergent and before that the nootropic thriller Limitless in 2011, director Neil Burger travels to space in his new feature Voyagers. While Limitless explored what happens when fast‑forwarding the human mind, Voyagers does the opposite, looking at psyches in regression. The film follows the small crew on Humanitas, a long‑distance vessel carrying them on a mission to colonise another Earth‑like planet in a far‑away solar system. The unit consists solely of young adults explicitly bred for the purpose and grown up in an isolated environment, nurtured for optimal function to ensure the highest possible mission success rate. It’s an 86‑year long journey that will span three generations, eventually delivering grandchildren to the final destination. The only tie to Earth is Richard (Colin Farrell), one of the scientists that helped raise the group, who at a late minute decides to accompany them. To avoid all kinds of disturbances you would otherwise expect from cooped up adolescents, they are kept in check through mandatory routines and a regimen of pacifying drugs. When the enterprising crew members and main characters Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) uncover these details, they refuse the chemical treatment and start to break out of the stringent program. It’s the fateful start of a descent into the lowest levels of biological instinct.

Many elements of Voyagers are reminiscent of communal collapse commentaries such as Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale, where a relatively small group find themselves fighting for survival only to find it might mean fighting each other. These are explorations of the dynamics of leadership, herd mentality, peer pressure, and paranoia, with brutal violence often an outcome. But where the stories it is modelled upon originate in accidental events or cruel experiments, Voyagers revolves around a supposedly benign setting. All the program architects ever wanted was to put thirty or so teenagers on a spaceship and keep them from going berserk for just two generations ahead. But much like nature finds a way in Jurassic Park, the hormonal kids in Voyagers break free of authority and find outlets for their basic urges. The theme is familiar and maybe too frequently recycled, but that might be because the underlying idea is highly relatable: confinement – spatial or mental – can destroy a person, but not without a struggle. The path towards willing participants in whatever system you are trying to create consists of belonging, influence, and autonomy. Control is an illusion.

It’s interesting to note the specific kind of instrumentalism that defines the Humanitas venture, leaning towards the biological side of behaviour. Although these kids are supposedly fostered to work well within the group and handle the psychological stress of extended space travel, it is ultimately their nature that needs to be contained, and above all, via substances. The chosen strategy to hinder their longing for Earth is not to expose them to Earth – its rich surroundings and diversity of people and places. The danger of this method is that it ignores how connection and empathy are formed in encounters with others, themselves shaped by many years of existing in a world of differences. Growing up in a tiny assembly of individuals, also conform due to selection on genetic treats, is in many ways more similar to a cult than a society. It’s also evident that many decidedly non‑biological interpersonal skills are left to chance. In drilling these optimised specimens, no one stopped to think about teaching them basics such as sexual consent. Something that leads to traumatic confrontations for the women on the ship – specifically Sela, the lead played by Lily‑Rose Depp, one of the few crew members that manage to keep level‑headed as everyone else plunges into the feral depths of fear and death drive.

Sela is the only one connected to Earth due to private conversations with Richard, who decides to show her pictures and plants from the home planet, all against mission protocol. Maybe we are to understand Sela’s ability to overcome the tribulations that ensue, as informed by this attachment. While her peers question the purpose of the mission and the point of upholding any of it – they will die in space anyway – Sela has seen the bigger picture. It’s hard to cherish a future world you will never see if you haven’t even seen the near‑mythical place it springs from. This insight would confirm the mission approach as questionable at best. Compartmentalisation leads to disengagement. Something that cannot be allowed to happen when civilisation hinges on the ship reaching its destination. Why it matters to be good, or why anything matters at all, when meaningful prospects are sparse, is one of the philosophical inquiries that takes centre stage in Voyagers.

On another note, it sometimes seems like humanity tries to avert future existential threats in the most complicated manner you could imagine. Voyagers establishes a technological level at which space propulsion is powerful enough to reach another star system in 86 years. It would require travelling at 5% of the speed of light to arrive merely at our nearest star Proxima Centauri in that time. There must surely be means to tackle whatever catastrophe has struck Earth in such a world. Most often, the epic space projects depicted in film and television are also the results of advanced international collaboration with both financing and politics solved to everyone’s liking. With global coordination of such calibre, no climate breakdown, nuclear winter, or imminent asteroid collision could put up a fight against humanity. There is the saying that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Likewise, it may be easier to imagine sending a multi‑generational interstellar ark many light‑years away to bootstrap a new human civilisation than a solution to climate change.

In any case, Voyagers never tells us the reason why humanity is doomed, an omission that might be for the better. Instead of undermining the whole premise, it focuses on what is essentially a story about human impulses and the will to power. Whether the choice of microcosm is a small island or a spaceship, the physical restrictions provide not only natural boundaries to illustrate a miniature society. It also adds a slightly claustrophobic tension that can heighten any drama of conflict. Voyagers does both things fairly well, without shattering any cinematic expectations.

Voyagers premieres in US cinemas on April 9, 2021.

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