Voyagers, the latest film from writer/director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless), leads with the promise of blending together a few different sci-fi ideas to create a unique new story. It’s set aboard a generation ship, a device that dates back over a century in space fiction but is rarely depicted on screen. There are also shades of The Giver, a young adult novel set in a dystopian future where emotions are chemically and psychically suppressed. Together, these ideas make for an intriguing sci-fi premise, but Voyagers discards in midstream most of what makes it unique and becomes a tired Lord of the Flies remake in space.
Voyagers is set in the mid-to-late 21st century, after scientists have discovered a new habitable planet to which humanity might relocate in order to escape the dying Earth. The journey to investigate this prospective new home will take 86 years, meaning that not only can there be no return trip for those who set forth on the spaceship Humanitas, but it will be the grandchildren of the original crew who settle and explore the planet. Believing that a lifetime of isolation aboard a cramped spacecraft would drive any adult insane, the organization behind Humanitas selectively breeds 30 astronauts and trains them from birth in seclusion before beginning their journey. The crew of Humanitas never sees the world outside their training facility, the design of which meticulously matches that of their future home in space, and they are exposed to the bare minimum of stimuli not related to the mission for which they were created. Accompanied by their guardian Richard (Colin Farrell, Widows), they set off on their journey as adolescents fated to live out the rest of their lives in space and produce the generations that will see the mission to its end.
The meat of the film takes place ten years into the journey, when Christopher (Tye Sheridan, Ready Player One) discovers that “The Blue,” a daily dietary supplement taken by the entire young adult crew, is actually a chemical designed to dull their emotions, reduce their physical sensation, and kill their sex drives. Christopher and his comparably rebellious friend Zac (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) decide to stop taking The Blue and quickly uncover new sensations — a greater delight in simple tasks like eating and exercising, an attraction to ship’s physician Sela (Lily-Rose Depp, The King), and a simmering rage over their total lack of control over their lives.
The first act sets up a number of interesting and unsettling dilemmas. Zac becomes a threatening sexual presence immediately, possessing a teenager’s libido but a toddler’s understanding of sexuality and boundaries. He becomes instantly possessive of Sela, who not only does not return his interest but fundamentally does not understand it, leading to an eerie scene in which Sela learns — by Zac’s clumsily groping hand — to fear a man for the first time. Christopher is preoccupied with more cerebral concerns, questioning his very purpose and the value of living an ethical life whose only reward is death. Knowing that he has been robbed of his own feelings helps him to understand that his entire life has been stolen, that he has never been given a choice as to what kind of life he wants to live.
If only the rest of the film were as interesting.
Boys Go to Jupiter to Get More Stupider
The failure of Voyagers begins with its characterization. On paper, following a group of brilliant but stifled twenty-somethings undergoing a mass emotional and sexual awakening is an exciting idea, a unique coming-of-age story in a bottle. The young astronauts’ behavior at the start of the film is, deliberately, mechanical and off-putting. These are people in the prime of their lives who have no thoughts, no interests beyond the operation and maintenance of their spacecraft. Even Christopher’s discovery of The Blue’s inhibiting effects are a product of the curiosity required of any scientist, as he traces a toxin that’s killing one of the ship’s plants back to its source.
The problem is that watching a group of adults with zero emotional intelligence fumble about for two hours is an intensely frustrating experience. Going off their mood stabilizers appears not only to make the crew confused and horny, but also painfully stupid to the extent that it becomes impossible to imagine that any of them — save Christopher, Sela, and the mission’s truest believer, Phoebe (Chanté Adams, Bad Hair) — are actually astronauts with a decade of intense training. The incompleteness of the characters is clearly a deliberate creative choice, but it’s poorly executed, and it’s difficult to connect with even the few of them who are granted more than a single personality trait.
It’s hard to blame the cast of Voyagers for their weak characters — in fact, some of the performances feel totally suited to their roles. Tye Sheridan is perfectly cast as a competent worker who utterly lacks in charisma and struggles to assert authority as he essentially becomes the hated RA of a rowdy college dorm. Quintessa Swindell (Trinkets, the upcoming Black Adam) makes the most of her small role as Julie, the only minor character who projects having a will of her own, even if she’s still susceptible to the push and pull of the conflict between Christopher and Zac. Fionn Whitehead delivers the film’s broadest performance as Zac, who is so transparently the bad guy at the start of the film that it gives him nowhere to go when the story calls for true villainy. (Though how much can you blame him when one of his first lines is the laughable “Decreased pleasure response? I want increased pleasure!”) But, as in the case of Lily-Rose Depp as Sela, most of the cast simply gets little of substance to work with.
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In Space, No One Can Hear the Conch
It’s difficult to discuss the film in detail — and reveal why it’s so disappointing — without spoilers, so consider this a warning if you’re still interested in Voyagers and want to go in relatively fresh.
About 35 minutes in, Richard dies under mysterious circumstances during a spacewalk, and the young Humanitas crew is left to fend for themselves. After initially electing Christopher their leader, the party soon splits between his calm pragmatism and Zac’s charisma and promise of a wilder, less regimented lifestyle. Zac also preys on his shipmates’ fears that an alien entity is responsible for Richard’s death, and that the unseen beast may still be somewhere on the ship. He trains his party into hunters and rules them by fear, which drowns out Christopher’s appeals for civilization. The two tribes end up at war with each other, culminating in the murder of the crew’s maligned rule-following innocent, Phoebe.
If you haven’t caught on to the parallels yet, the second hour of Voyagers maps pretty easily onto William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, with Christopher as Ralph, Zac as Jack, and Phoebe in the drastically reduced role of Piggy, set aboard a spacecraft instead of on an island. During this part of the film, the ideas that made Voyagers seem interesting in the beginning are nearly absent. Their nature as a generational colony ship on a one-way trip to save humanity isn’t totally forgotten, but it becomes secondary to a much less interesting conflict.
Instead of framing the struggle between Team Chris and Team Zac as one between those willing to sacrifice for the long-term vs. those who would rather gratify themselves at the expense of future generations (therefore repeating the mistakes that doomed Earth in the first place), it’s a battle of rationality vs. fear mongering with the two factions split based on who does or does not subscribe to the invisible space monster theory. Therefore, Zac isn’t bad because he’s putting the entire future of humanity at stake, he’s bad because he’s a snot-nosed bully. A stronger motivation than a naked thirst for power — perhaps digging more into a well-earned resentment for the folks back on Earth who literally manufactured him to die solving a problem that he had no hand in creating — might have given Zac some weight as a villain, and the film some thematic consistency.
The struggle ends with Christopher and Sela — now the only surviving holdouts against Zac’s revolution — outrunning his hunting party and jettisoning Zac himself out an airlock. When Christopher and Sela inform the rest of the crew of Zac’s death, they simply lower their weapons and give up, perhaps an admission that they always knew there was no alien and that Zac simply offered an excuse to abandon the mission they were bred for. There’s some resonance to this, a parallel to the way our own culture would rather appoint boogeymen and build border walls than confront the real, more terrifying threat of climate change — a challenge that we, too, have been born into and cannot escape. But, as an ending to this film, it’s simply too pat, with the establishment of a new, more democratic system of governing the Humanitas and the promise of a successful journey to their new home being crammed into the last five minutes. It’s hard not to think about how much better of a movie Voyagers could have been had it not spent so much of its runtime retreading a book most of the audience read in the seventh grade.