Lost in Space: Human nature in Neil Burger’s “Voyagers.”

There’s a scene that never happens in Neil Burger’s latest film, Voyagers, that has become a standard device in most Sci-Fi films that deal with space travel. Weary travelers begin to move after years of slumber ensconced in a glass and metal cocoon. Depending on the film, the effects of this long and deep sleep can range from nausea and disorientation to no adverse effects at all. In short, when long distances are implied, filmmakers opt to simply put their characters into hibernation during their trip. Of course, it’s all wild fiction, if not a bit lazy at this point. Never mind the fact that cryogenics has a really long way to go in real life. To its credit, Voyagers never indulges in the suspended animation fallacy.

The film tells the story of a group of specially bred humans who set off from Earth in the hopes of eventually establishing a colony on an Earth-like planet in a nearby star system. The crew consists entirely of young adults except for a sole adult minder (played by Colin Farrell). However, theirs is a  thankless mission since they are never expected to actually see their ship’s destination. Because of the distance involved, they will never know a reality outside of the ship carrying them. Their descendants will enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice.

“Suspended animation doesn’t work and freezing embryos isn’t viable over long distances,” Burger told SCINQ. “The idea in the movie was that they would essentially cultivate their own crew by basically creating humans by taking astrophysicist sperm and microbiologist egg and raising young people in a ship that simulates the ship they’ll be on so that they don’t miss earth.”

Technically, the vessel carrying multiple-generations of travellers is known as a generation ship. Originally conceived by Konstantin E.Tsiolkovsky in his 1928 essay, “The Future of Earth and Mankind.” They have been likened to Noah’s Ark, only in space. In Sci-Fi dreaming, it represents the lesser known alternative to suspended animation. Since then different iterations of the idea has been tossed about and sometimes seriously investigated, for example in a project called A Hundred-Year Starship that had NASA involvement and also by researchers at the University of Munich in the 2011 Hyperion Project.

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Burger touches on a few of the concerns associated with the reality of establishing a generation ship, namely the ethics of forcing a spaceship existence on individuals without thier consent and also the possibility of social breakdown on the vehicle. After a repair mishap forces the crew to hold elections, two opposing groups form — one headed by Jack (Fionn Whitehead) and the other by Christopher Rebbs (Tye Sheridan) and Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) — and a violent power struggle ensues. Much of the anger that initially leads to the schism is the result of a growing sense of being aggrieved by the fact that they were never given the choice of whether to participate in the mission.

The film has drawn comparisons to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and in an interview with Variety, Burger readily acknowledges the similarities and the differences.

I love the book “Lord of the Flies” and I love the Peter Brook movie. Once I wrote the script, I wondered if what I was doing was what that story had done. Rather than trying to run away from it, I decided to lean into it… But it does have differences. “Lord of the Flies” is very much about those boys reverting to male British behavior involving hunting and war. In our case, the crew of young men and women have no cultural references at all. When we strip away everything, what we’re looking at is human nature in a vacuum. They’re not reverting to any cultural stereotype.

Regardless of the idea’s provenance, the conflict central to the Voyagers offers a fascinating insight into human nature when stripped of normalizing social constraints.

(Voyagers opens today in theaters across the United States.)

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