Stephen Lee Naish reviews Neil Burger’s Voyagers and finds an impoverished ruling class vision of space travel where reaching for the stars means more of the same.
Voyagers (2021, director: Neil Burger), the latest science fiction film to hit the Amazon Prime streaming service may not appear to carry much political weight or contain much cultural critique. However, there are moments within the narrative that speak to our times, especially when it comes to the desire for exo-planetary exploration and the expansion of humanity’s reach beyond Earth, the use of falsified information and the tactics of fear and intimidation for ideological gain, and what lengths people will go to in times of peril. For these reasons, and for some solid performances from the young cast, it is a film that might be worth a more in-depth analysis.
In 2063, parts of the Earth have become uninhabitable due to accelerated climate disruption and there is an indication that parts of society are crumbling as the planet slowly dies. A group of astrophysicists discover a world many light-years away that appears to be habitable. They detect copious amounts of freshwater, a breathable atmosphere, and land that would be ideal for farming. It is a virgin Earth just ready for the plucking.
To save humanity, a mission is established to take the 87-year journey towards this new world. This will be a generational expedition, in which the young teenagers who first set out on the ship Humanitas, and who have been purposely born and raised in total isolation on Earth for this very mission, will have children, who will then go on to have children of their own and the journey will eventually be completed by the original crew’s adult grandkids.
Ten years into the journey the crew have become well adjusted, if slightly stilted, young adults. They have also been duped into ingesting a kind of sedative that dulls the usual complex emotions of young adulthood. Feelings such as aggression, greed, lust, and jealousy are things they have never really experienced to the full. They have also never fully experienced love, passion, laughter, or joy.
When two of the male crew members, Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) begin to suspect there is a conspiracy to control them they refuse to take the sedative. The two young men are suddenly overcome with a wave of emotions that they have no experience to control.
Paranoia ensues when Richard (Colin Farrell), the mission’s chief architect, teacher, guidance counselor, and the only adult to accompany the kids on their journey, is killed whilst performing maintenance outside the ship. The young adults are then forced to create a structure of command.
Christopher and Zac compete for dominance of the crew. Christopher is the more obvious leader. He is well-liked, sensible, and charismatic. He is democratically voted to be the new commander by much of the crew. Zac on the other hand is more of an impulsive tyrant and uses manipulation, prejudice, threats, and violence to gain power within the crew and stage a coup-d’état.
A battle ensues between the two ideologies with Christopher and his supporters eventually overcoming Zac’s authoritarian stance and disposing of him out of the ship’s airlock when his actions shift from violence to actual murder.
The Humanitas voyage continues to the new planet with Christopher’s partner Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) being voted as the new leader of the crew. The Humanitas eventually reaches its destination 86 years after setting off with the original crew’s offspring settling their new home.
What’s interesting about Voyagers is how the film pulls on threads of our current predicament. Firstly, and most importantly, we are facing environmental collapse. Our world could easily morph into the future seen within the film. By 2063, if no real work is done to scale back reliance on fossil fuels and overconsumption we will have succumbed to environmental catastrophe. Looking to the stars for a new world might be a viable option if we don’t pull it together within the next decade.
That said, even if one were found, reaching a faraway world is complicated when faced with depleted resources. Our urban infrastructure can’t even be repaired or replaced today without bureaucratic hurdles that delay the necessary funds and manpower. What collective hope would we have in four decades’ time of creating a generational ship to move us to the stars when the resources are down to a dripping tap?
There is also the scary possibility of eventually never being able to leave the Earth even if an alternative planet was discovered. Space debris from all of our exploration efforts have left a fast-moving web of objects circulating the earth. NASA’s Best guess at the moment is that 23,000+ pieces of rocket material, and abandoned satellites cruise the Earth’s orbit. This web of space junk is only going to increase in size as more and more materials are blasted up into space. In a few decades, getting a rocket up and past this debris field will be a near-impossible task.
But none of this seems of concern to the capitalist class who have taken it upon themselves to reach for the stars on humanity’s behalf. This expansion into space has been the goal of our billionaires for decades. Now, with the cost of materials cheaper than ever and more accessible, private aerospace industry companies have taken over from, and indeed taken over parts of the publicly funded NASA and other government space agencies who have seen their funding slashed over the course of decades or sold off to military and space tourism interests. Space is no longer a place for those visionary dreamers that took those first flights into the unknown or landed us on the moon for the heck of it. Space is now a place to be colonized, exploited, and used to make an untold profit.
What about the problems we have here on Earth? A cliché, I know. But wouldn’t these resources be better directed to implementing a mass unifying movement to clean up the Earth’s atmosphere, remove the plastic from the oceans, create and invest in a green jobs economy, and get rid of some of that space junk before we’re trapped here? Not likely. Our ruling class has given up on saving planet Earth and is pushing their desire/agenda for space travel, colonization, and mineral extraction from passing meteorites into the public sphere to distract from the real devastation they are causing here on Earth.
Elon Musk, Tesla CEO and Chief Engineer of SpaceX has his heart set on sending a colonizing force to Mars in the very near future. Musk’s intention is to send 1000 ships with a complement of 100,000 colonists to Mars by 2060. This will be the first wave of people to build the infrastructure that will shield a future population from the harmful radiation, the biting cold, the lack of water or food. Musk’s ambition is a mass death version of Survivor. None will live to find a meaningful existence on our neighboring planet. Mars will become a graveyard for the mutated and the deluded.
Of course, as the world burns and more brutal despots seize power, an escape might be the only option. “Stop the world – I wanna get off!”
Jeffery Bezos, Amazon.com founder and head of aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin has already conquered the upper atmosphere by sending himself and others into space, including Star Trek actor William Shatner. As he floated in the upper atmosphere, he is responsible below for a culture of low-paid precarious employment, union-busting activities, and Amazon couriers who are so overworked they have to take a piss into water bottles on the go. Bezos even had the gall to thank all his employees for making his dreams come true. Most of his employees probably don’t wish to be blasted into space. They’d be content with a decent pay packet, a unionized shop floor, and benefits that covered medical and dental.
Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson recently blasted himself into the upper stratosphere and had a float about in the zero-gravity environment. Both Branson and Bezos flew off into space just as intense heat domes hovered over parts of North America and hundreds of forests burned below them. It must have been quite a sight to behold considering Branson’s origins in the aviation industry which pumped 2.5% of total greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere in 2018.
Billionaires and the mega-rich see abandoning Earth and society as the only option. If they can’t live in pristine orbital habitats or untouched worlds then they can at least seclude themselves away from the environmental damage and societal collapse they have sown in places where the catastrophe won’t impact as hard. Silicon Valley’s millionaires and billionaires have become doomsday preppers buying great swathes of land in New Zealand and swapping advice about air filtering systems and A grade masks to survive the coming storms. They have seen the future and it is murder.
They have convinced themselves their plans are righteous, now we are the ones that need convincing that space exploration is feasible and a realistic alternative to saving the planet. After all, Voyagers streams on Bezos’s very own Amazon Prime service. We can expect more films to be financed that detail a positive embrace of space travel to a new world than a positive narrative about ending oil extraction on earth, building clean air infrastructure, or implementing a Green New Deal that benefits the working class.
Films such as Voyagers explore and make the idea palatable to the public. The Earth can be damned if we can mine asteroids for resources or even better, locate a new world and voyage towards it to start afresh.
Promoting space travel and escape from the earth is not the only point of intrigue. Another area of interest within the film is the emergence of an ideological battle between Christopher and Zac. Zac, in a plot to take control and leadership of Humanitas, begins a campaign of fear, intimidation, and fake accounts of an alien presence on the ship that wants to destroy the crew. Zac deploys the fear of the so-called ‘other’, something that is different, something dangerous that cannot be understood or reasoned with but absolutely must be fought. He pins this ‘otherness’ on members of the crew who won’t succumb to his demands.
This same division is sown – in some cases with great success – in our own societies. World leaders and the media are misdirecting their citizens towards blaming immigrants, or other minorities, for the hardships they are currently facing. These hardships have mostly been inflicted by their own governments’ incompetence and ideological policies that favor the mega-rich and wealthy.
This division has reaped havoc in our societies and has placed blowhards like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Boris Johnson in positions of power to enact policies against the working class and working poor of their respective countries. While creating these divisions between members of the working class, immigrants and asylum seekers are demonized and the blame shifted to those seeking a better life outside of their war-torn countries. Solidarity that once existed within the working class and immigrant communities has now been eroded.
In the United Kingdom, the division between the leave or remain options of the Brexit referendum campaign of 2016 cut into the very heart of the country and the repercussions are still being felt to this day with no end in sight. It pitted neighbour against neighbour, father against son, and sister against brother like no other democratic event in history. Even with the exposure of mistruths, manipulations, and outright lies the advisory vote to leave the European Union was granted. Likewise, after Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016 and even after his defeat in 2020, and the attempted insurrection by Trump’s supporters to violently retake the capital, the division sown means that America may never recover the standing it once had in the world as that “shining city on the hill” that every nation wished to emulate. The divisions within society now run too deep, and thanks to the fire being stoked by the media pundantary, the fighters of each ideological standpoint mostly have the wrong antagonist in their viewfinder.
What the narrative of Voyagers doesn’t do is offer much in the way of radical thinking that could get us moving in a new direction. A way of thinking that dispenses with the divisiveness described above and instead pulls focus on equality, reconciliation with the land, and reversal of the incredible damage caused to our planet by humankind’s lust for oil. Sure, the installation of Christopher and Sela as leaders of the mission gives Humanitas the stability it needs to continue, but it also seems to be business as usual. The same model of bureaucratic ‘end of history’ liberalism that has been installed within the ship is now heading to destroy a virgin planet.
The crew of the Humanitas deploys the same response to similar problems with inadequate methods. No matter who we vote for it is the same result. This happens in Voyagers, but it also happens in reality. Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in 2020 is no great victory for the left in America, nor does it hold any possibility for radical change. It will probably sow more divisions that will further the fragmentation of the American populace. Whereas in the past, these divisions mostly existed along class lines, now those within the same class and social standing are being directed to pull punches among themselves while the ruling elite inflicts more harm with little resistance from the squabbling masses.
Of course, a defeat of Boris Johnson’s Tory government by a Keir Starmer-led Labour Party wouldn’t change a thing for British society. Yes, one is certainly better than the other. But ultimately, they all play out the same way. Neoliberalism still wins the day. Big business is still given permission to rip up the planet in the name of profit.
I’m not dismissing the kind of narrative seen in Voyagers. To be honest I find them riveting. The idea of new and exciting worlds out there in the cosmos teeming with potential life is fascinating and the astrophysicists and exoplanetologists who theorize and locate these far-off exo-planets, and detect the compositions are incredible people. It would be far more interesting and illuminating to have scientists in more prominent social positions than our pampered class of politicians, media conglomerates, and big tech CEOs who constantly feed us misleading and distracting narratives.
What troubles me about films such as Voyagers is the lack of imagination in possibilities of what traveling towards a new world could bring and what new methods of organizing a society could look like. In their book Exoplanets: Diamond Worlds, Super Earths, Pulsar Planets, and the New Search for Life Beyond Our Solar System Michael Summers and James Treffil write eloquently about shifting our collective paradigm to understand the classifications of life beyond our own planet. We should not be occupied with finding a civilization that organizes itself like our own. The possibilities are endless in what intelligent life could be like on other worlds. We might not even recognize it if we came across it. The same paradigm shift should occur in our own thinking when we contemplate a new world or, more importantly, a fight for the world we currently live in.
In most of these spacefaring narratives the characters who are predominantly white and predominantly male (no massive swerve in Voyagers) take with them the same human deficiencies and ideological quagmires that have got humanity into the mess they are currently escaping from.
The crew of Humanitas is no different. Despite the young crew being born and raised in total isolation by a group of caring scientists, they carry with them into the cosmos the same inherent paranoia, prejudices, and desire for dominance. The big clue is the secret bunker of weaponry attached to the Humanitas that the third generation will deploy when they arrive at their new home. Just in case an indigenous species gets any ideas about protesting or resisting the human pioneers as they settle their new planet. A familiar story will play out of Western expansion and imperialism in a new world.
When the third-generation crew arrives on the new world they gaze upon its purity and we know in their minds they are looking upon it with the same desire for dominance, exploitation, and resource extraction as the European colonists who first conquered the Atlantic Ocean to find and settle North America. That world is doomed the moment they set foot on it.
I don’t want to make this an anti-space treatise. I think that leaving the planet and finding new worlds and opportunities should be a unifying endeavor. Yes, I have probably seen too much Star Trek: The Next Generation (by far the most egalitarian version of the numerous shows) and have absorbed the future utopian vision and the Prime Directive that guides humankind to explore the cosmos at will, but remain observant and respectful of other lifeforms and their natural habitats and development and engage only when called upon. The show’s protagonists broke this directive on numerous occasions, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by mistake, but it is worth using the directive as a jumping-off point for what a spacefaring humanity should strive to be.
We need to view space and space travel not in consumerist terms and for the sole purpose of the expansion of our species to other corners of the solar system and beyond, but the expansion of our understanding of what it means to occupy our own frail planet right now. This continuation of exploitation shouldn’t be transferred to space or other planetary bodies. We should explore, find, and observe other worlds if we have reasonable means, but we should resist the desire to settle them. Maybe at least until we’ve learned to care for our own.
When William Shatner returned from his own space journey with Jeff Bezos he proposed, like many capitalists have, to move the polluting industries into space. Shatner misses the point – they all do. Polluting industries should be shut down and not allowed to continue their exploits on or off-world.
If we allow capitalists to control this narrative of space, then we will also tolerate the destruction it causes to our planet long after they have concealed themselves away from the carnage.
We can do several things to shift our thinking. We can advocate for a global space program that means the infrastructure, the theory, the technology is in the public, not private domain. This will mean new and exciting developments can be turned towards our own planet’s repair and sustainability. We can advocate for the technology that could get us to space to be built in the most sustainable way possible and for the emissions to be offset two-fold. This is one thing Elon Musk is doing right with his reusable Falcon rockets and launch systems. The hands and minds that go into such an endeavor must be dignified, unionized, and well-paid. A cultural shift of understanding would mean even those not involved in a space program would be invested in its outcome. And the best way to shift culture is to create visions that set this egalitarian project against the corporate perception. We must begin to see on screen, in visual arts, and in literature that a bold yet humane space program can exist. As science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson states: “science itself is a leftism”. There can be no better unifying endeavor than to reach the stars as a collective and for the collective good of our home planet.
Voyagers puts some interesting ideas on screen, but they are mostly ideas to react against. There is a lack of imagination, understanding, and intrigue from the filmmakers to want to ‘shift the paradigm’ or create a critique of why we would be venturing away from a damaged Earth in the first place and how our new world will be treated any differently. As a piece of entertainment, the film does an adequate job. But science fiction has more pressing work to achieve as Kim Stanley Robinson concludes: “science fiction is just the future-oriented wing of literature.” Yet the future depicted in Voyagers is one we should actively reject.
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