Everything old is eventually new again, and the tiresome science fiction drama Voyagers offers nothing more than that cliché. Filmmaker Neil Burger, who directed the first Veronica Roth adaptation, Divergent, returns to the young-adult world with Voyagers — not to be confused with Passengers, another sci-fi film where a male character manipulates a woman trapped on a spaceship with him. Voyagers has the same setup as so many space films, with a crew isolated in space and increasingly divided by fear and paranoia. But Burger doesn’t bring anything new to the material, which was lifted practically beat for beat from William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies. And he ignores every opportunity to deviate from that predictable narrative path.
Like the recent Cosmic Sin, Voyagers feints toward using its space setting as an opportunity for insight about the human condition, but its execution is as lackluster as that film’s sleepwalking version of Bruce Willis. Cosmic Sin tried and failed to make some kind of point about the cost of war and the sacrifices soldiers make to protect us. Voyagers tries and fails to make some kind of point about the cost of progress and the sacrifices explorers make to protect us. But Burger plays this story so straight, with no hint of humor or irony, that Voyagers also offers no surprises. The plot reveals all its beats within the first 10 or so minutes.
It also pales in comparison to the other genre pictures it evokes: Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca, Drake Doremus and Nathan Parker’s Equals, and Claire Denis’s High Life. Those films were purposeful in depicting the implied elitism of exploration, humanity’s hubris in attempting to control the stars, and the lawlessness of space as the “final frontier.” Voyagers, meanwhile, uses stock footage of dilated pupils and crashing waves to communicate love. And when things go bad on the spaceship, he communicates adolescent viciousness by killing off mostly Black and brown teenagers. Each attempt at nuance is increasingly more facile than the last.
A self-serious opening sequence explains that Earth in 2063 is ravaged and ruined, so some humans decide to send a group to a newly discovered planet that has both water and oxygen. (Burger is so disinterested in his world-building that his script leaves it unclear whether these people are a multinational group of scientists, or some kind of elected officials, or former astronauts themselves, or what.) Because the journey will take 86 years, they send a group of children genetically engineered to be the best of the best, with mission chief Richard (Colin Farrell) along for the ride as a sort of hybrid leader, babysitter, and therapist.
The children are raised in sterile, all-white storage containers that are isolated from the rest of the world. They learn on screens and laptops, not from teachers. They don’t laugh, talk amongst themselves, or really interact with each other. They’re told every day by tinny audio recordings that they’re special, their grandchildren born on the same spaceship will colonize the planet they’re traveling to, and their sacrifice is appreciated by the world they’re leaving behind. The adults rationalize this project by saying the children won’t miss Earth because they never truly knew it. Richard has the utmost faith that these children will grow into teenagers, then adults, who do their jobs and fulfill the mission.
But 10 years later, when the children are adolescents, they aren’t as docile. Close friends Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) collect information about the ship as if each new insight will help clarify how they came to be born in this place, at this time, and with this responsibility. They hack into the ship’s database and discover two things that kick-start the plot: There is a hidden compartment somewhere in the vessel, and the mandatory “Blue” drink the teens are given every day has a worrying secret ingredient. What is Richard hiding from them in that room? Why is he lying to them about Blue? And what other secrets could he be harboring, especially related to his relationship with Sela (Lily-Rose Depp)?
When Christopher and Zac stop drinking Blue, Voyagers fully embraces Lord of the Flies mimicry. Divisions form within the group. The teens become feverishly obsessed with a mysterious enemy. And laziness, aggression, and heterosexual experimentation spread. (Weird and noticeable: the way the film’s Black and brown characters primarily emerge as antagonistic, promiscuous, or duplicitous.) The teens rebel, which is an understandable reaction for young people bred to die for strangers.
And yet there’s no sense that Burger has any real sympathy for these characters, or empathy about the confusion and aimlessness they must be feeling. The story is black and white, evil people vs. good people, with those designations being hammered home during numerous altercations in the ship’s mess hall, systems room, and sleeping quarters. There is no nuance to the conversations the teenagers have about bullying, sexual assault, or personal responsibility, but Voyagers insists upon them rather than indulging in any potential B-movie appeal. A malevolent force is introduced, but dropped. The script floats the idea that the teens could be forced to reproduce against their will, but that idea is abandoned, too. There are legitimate dangers in Voyagers
The most tiring aspect of Voyagers is the way Burger falls into a pattern where practically every action onscreen is then repetitively described by the characters present. When the power goes out, someone says, “They cut the power.” Moments later, when the antagonists look in through the door, a protagonist worriedly remarks, “They’re here.” The reliance on that kind of simplistic, descriptive dialogue means that Voyagers doesn’t dig into the larger philosophical questions that science fiction normally explores, and that this setup invites. Burger doesn’t care to contemplate whether humanity is inherently selfish, or expound on the narrative that these kids are essentially sacrificial lambs. He doesn’t even develop his characters very well: Christopher is the protective one, Sela is the logical one, Zac is the devious one. (At least Whitehead seems to be having fun with the smirking, bullying role.) There isn’t much more to them.
Voyagers’ posturing toward being an edgier, grittier movie than it turns out to be is captured in the film’s poster. In the promo image, Sheridan and Depp’s practically nude bodies lie together in a sexually charged pose, with Earth in their rear view. They’re leaving humanity behind, the poster suggests, while wrapped up in each other instead. In reality, Voyagers is never that explicit in its depiction of a romance between Christopher and Sela, nor that pointed in its repudiation of Earth as a failed planet. Instead, Burger has crafted a shrug of a movie that insists teenagers should follow the rules and submit to the greater good, but fails to imagine what toll that kind of sacrifice would really take. It almost makes Divergent look good.
Voyagers opens in theatrical release on April 9, with a VOD release planned for June 10, 2021. Before visiting a theater, The Madison Leader Gazette recommends reading our guide to local theater safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.