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[Kim Seong-kon] Choosing reliable leaders for our voyage

By Korea Herald

Published : April 10, 2024 - 05:31

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As the well-known saying goes, “Life is a journey.” Indeed, we are all lifelong travelers in one way or another. When we travel, we may have a pleasant trip, where we meet new people and enjoy exciting adventures. We might also have a perilous journey of obstacles and ordeals. During our voyage, we might encounter a perfect storm or a dangerous reef that threatens to capsize us. Other times, we become lost and wander, or we may stumble down the wrong path.

The 2021 American science fiction movie “Voyagers” superbly illustrates humans as voyagers in the universe. In 2063, as climate change ravages the Earth and turns it into an uninhabitable, barren planet, humans need to move to another world in order to survive. The surviving humans therefore decide to send a selected group of preteen astronauts under the supervision of an adult, chief officer Richard, to colonize a habitable exoplanet. Since the voyage takes about 86 years, the crew will only arrive at the exoplanet after three generations.

After ten years of voyage in the spaceship “Humanitas,” Christopher and Zack find out that the “blue” beverage they drink daily contains a chemical that suppresses their sexual desires and pleasures. The original plan is to breed 30 egg and sperm cells repeatedly through IVF, that is, “in vitro fertilization” kept in isolation in the spaceship. Therefore, neither sexual intercourse nor childbirth is necessary for the young astronauts.

Here looms the first theme of “Voyagers”: Is it all right to control and manipulate people if it is for a good cause? The chemical in the beverage has some positive effects, such as making the teenage crew stay calm and manageable. After they quit drinking the “blue” beverage, the teenagers become aggressive, impulsive and obsessive with their sexual urges due to their surging hormones. Yet, it does not seem to be right to suppress freedom or take away the pleasure of human beings even for a grand cause.

The second outstanding theme of “Voyagers” is our responsibility for the future generation. The teenage crew of “Humanitas” have to spend their entire lives inside the spaceship in order to enable the next generation to settle down in the new habitable exoplanet. Therefore, sometimes they wonder, “But what about our own lives? Do we really have to spend our entire lives constantly traveling, even though it is for our children and grandchildren?” However, we have moral obligations to bequeath a better society to our descendants. Besides, life is a journey and we all are voyagers, after all.

Later, Zack kills chief officer Richard with an electric shock while Richard was repairing a malfunctioning Earth communication system. By turning on the electricity to the maximum level, Zack also damages the space systems, endangering the safety of his fellow voyagers. Then, he brazenly recommends himself as the new chief officer, replacing Richard. When Christopher becomes the new chief officer by vote, Zack becomes furious and jealous.

It is at this moment when the third and the most important theme of this movie emerges: Beware of a beguiling, tyrannical self-appointed leader who entices us with populism, deceives us with lies and fake news, and misguides us in our lifelong journey. In that sense, the spaceship Humanitas is a microcosm of our society that reflects our contemporary socio-political situation.

Indeed, when Zack usurps the throne of Christopher by force, he then becomes a demagogue, populist and dictator. First, Zack spreads fake news that an alien hiding in the spaceship killed Richard and convinces the crew that only he can protect them from the aliens. Second, he entices the crew with populism by letting the crew eat as much of the stored food as they want. Third, he insinuates that aliens inhabit some of the crew and targets his political opponents as alien hosts.

Although Christopher shows the crew the video of Zack’s murder of Richard, most of them still foolishly choose to follow Zack as the leader. They even cruelly kill an innocent fellow crewmember, deceived by Zack’s suggestion that the person is an alien carrier. Instead of reason and rationality, therefore, sheer frenzy and collective hysteria pervade the spaceship.

This is all too familiar to those of us who have witnessed Zack-like politicians who seize power through agitation and demagogy. Indeed, we have seen too many examples of demagogues who brainwash the people with lies and instigate their followers to violence. They seduce people with populism and blame their rivals as if they were hosts for aliens. Under the pretense of eliminating “aliens” hidden in our society, they persecute and eliminate those who do not follow them. Through inflammatory rhetoric, these confident men pretend they are saviors who can protect the people from the danger symbolized by what they call “aliens among us.”.

For the safe voyage of our country, we should choose the right leaders. If we fail to do it, we will face shipwreck and capsize. The choice is ours.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.