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Why ‘Voyagers’ puts space travelers in a rat maze

Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, as humorist Douglas Adams wrote in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But during a long journey,  a spaceship’s confined quarters can feel mind-bogglingly small — potentially messing with a space traveler’s mind.

Depression, isolation and brain fog are among the health hazards traditionally associated with months-long space missions.  And back in 1999, a 110-day simulated space mission in Russia reportedly sparked even more serious flare-ups, including a sexual harassment case and a bloody fistfight between crew members.

So what might happen if space travelers go on a decades-long odyssey to a far-off, habitable star system — a mission so long that the children who begin the trip have little hope of seeing its end?

That’s the premise of “Voyagers,” a movie written and directed by Neil Burger. And it shouldn’t be any surprise that sex and violence are part of the formula, as they were during the simulated space trip in 1999.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, production designer Scott Chambliss discusses how the stripped-down, closed-in environment he created for the movie’s multi-generational spaceship sets the scene for a space-based retelling of “Lord of the Flies.”

Chambliss has a lot of experience creating the look of science-fiction movies, including “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” and “Star Trek Into Darkness.” (He also numbers “Godzilla: King of Monsters” and “Mission Impossible III” among his screen credits.)

The thing he liked about “Voyagers” is that it isn’t your typical science-fiction movie, with X-wing pilots zooming through hyperspace.

“It really is a chamber drama,” he told me. “The same story could play out in any enclosed sort of environment — not necessarily a spaceship. And I think part of the power of the drama is that intense confinement of the world that these kids live in.”

That’s in line with the overarching theme of Burger’s movie.

“The story is about human nature in a vacuum, and the ship is a sterile environment where the young crew almost seem like laboratory rats,” Burger says in the movie’s production notes. “We watch to see how they behave under these conditions, how they quickly descend into savagery. And we wonder, is this who we are at our core?”

Scott Chambliss on set of "Voyagers"
Production designer Scott Chambliss stands in one of the spaceship corridors that was built on a Romanian soundstage for the movie “Voyagers.” (Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate)

To support the rat-maze metaphor, Chambliss’ spaceship has plenty of narrow corridors to get lost in, and plenty of crawlspaces to hide in. An entire labyrinth was built at Bucharest Film Studios in Romania, home to some of Europe’s largest soundstages.

A visit to SpaceX’s headquarters in California inspired the tight, white look of the spaceship’s common rooms and living quarters.

“That definitely had an impact on our sets, as well as a specific materiality of the kinds of things they were employing, not only in the spacecraft that they were developing, but also in their own in-house workspaces and stations,” Chambliss said. “Very grounded, very utilitarian, but they had a specific, clean, smart look to them.”

Even the weapons that turn up in the course of a confrontation are reminiscent of the flamethrowers that one of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s other ventures, the Boring Company, sold as a gimmick. (Sorry, SpaceX fans, the movie’s weapons don’t actually throw flames.)

Chambliss and the rest of the “Voyagers” production team didn’t limit their research to space sites. They also picked up design tips from prisons, laboratories and corporate offices. “Any sort of super-institutional, personality-free kind of construction,” Chambliss said.

“Voyagers” may well remind some moviegoers of woes that hit closer to home — the at-home isolation forced by the coronavirus pandemic, for example, or the stir-crazy frustration and emotional manipulation that contributed to January’s attack on the U.S. Capitol.

How much does Chambliss’ work contribute to the movie’s message?

“While a setting, on its own, isn’t the be-all and end-all of a movie’s story, it’s the world that the story exists in,” he said. “And that world has the effect which creates our characters’ personalities and motivates why they act the way they do, and the things that they choose to do.”

That’s what get him excited about working on a movie, whether it’s set in the real world or in the way-out world of science fiction.

“You get to define a world on the terms of the story,” Chambliss said. “And that’s a very creative act of its own.”

Cosmic Log Book (and Movie) Club

We traditionally ask our Fiction Science guests what they’re reading and watching — and because Chambliss has spent 30 years doing art and production design for movies, most of his recommendations pertain to the silver screen. Here’s a list of recommended movies (and books):

  • The 1972 Russian version of “Solaris,” directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, leads Chambliss’ list of favorite science-fiction movies. “I love ‘2001,’ of course, but it’s almost impossible to watch anymore, because we’ve so absorbed that film in our culture that it’s lost some of its meaning to me,” he said.
  • “The Conformist” (1970), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. “The leading characters in the film are not the leading characters of the story,” Chambliss said. “Italy itself is the leading character. And that sociopolitical moment in time is the other leading character.”
  • “In the Mood for Love” (2000), a Hong Kong romantic drama directed by Wong Kar-Wai. “Pretty amazing,” Chambliss said.

When it comes to books, Chambliss favors nonfiction that delves into 20th-century history.

“It helps me understand the stories that I work on, because they’re rooted in our life experience, obviously, and the best ones are finding ways to tell our stories in the context of science fiction,” he explained. “It’s my education in the world — our world in America, anyway — and also my grounding and accessing the humanity of these fictional stories that we’re telling, putting them in the workd that we know and finding the heart and the hope in them.”

Here’s a sampling:

While “Voyagers” is making its debut in theaters, Scott Chambliss is hard at work on his current design project: doing the production design for “Citadel,” a spy thriller series for Amazon Studios.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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