This is going to get confusing, but critiquing Voyagers calls upon several illustrative conflicts. First off, science fiction is the realm of high-minded concepts of fantasy, and yet organic humanity creates and drives each and every great idea in the genre. In the same regard, you have homage versus originality in applying prototypical themes to the luster of new settings. Lasty, you have an audience’s subjective aim to project any number of thoughts out of a movie while the work was created with certain objectives in mind that may not be seen or readily interpreted. All three of those dichotomies clash in Neil Burger’s new film with mixed results.
In Voyagers, the year is 2063. Rapidly worsening climate change has led scientific agencies to search the stars for desperate re-colonization hopes. The closest hospitable planet is over 80 years of interstellar travel away. This project of paramount importance, stewarded by Colin Farrell’s Richard, is to breed a collection of genetically-choice youths to become a sustainable astronaut crew for the mission. At a crossroads where life feels hopeless, these lives are incredibly important to providing a future.
Thirty children are raised in indoor isolation with narrowed education to prevent them developing attachments on Earth. Simply put, survival matters more than love. Their role beyond the technical one after liftoff is to procreate the necessary second generation, for it is their eventual grandchildren which will finally be the ones to arrive and build humanity’s new home. With grave truth, those original 30 will not survive the journey, and they know it upfront all too well. To help continue to guide these now-twentysomethings under heavy pressure, Richard volunteers to join this noble one-way trip as their commanding officer and continuing leader, counselor, and teacher.
Part of the “playing God” science of these 30 creations is a nutritional and pharmaceutical regime that keeps them docile and desensitized. Strict programs and rules create the rest of the deemed-essential behavioral conditioning. Such indoctrination, chemical manipulation, and suppressed humanity may work on children, but falters with inquisitive and impetuous young adults who begin to want more than their operational death sentences.
When Richard is incapacitated, the untethered crew are left to fend for themselves. Natural social and intellectual leaders develop among Sela (Lily-Rose Depp of The King), Zac (Dunkirk discovery Fionn Whitehead), and Chris (Ready Player One’s Tye Sheridan). Sela and Chris stay devoted to the core of the mission and the need for continuing upkeep. Meanwhile, Zac and many others cut the drugged control and start a feral dissenting faction touting freedom.
Zac speechifies and searches for peer favor to proclaim, “We’re just going to die in the end, so why can’t we do what we want?” Surges of unchecked impulse control and basest emotional needs lead to moral and physical confrontations of inherent evils versus inherent excellence. The best and worst of people are unleashed.
Voyagers looks and sounds the part of claustrophobic space travel in a shrewd and economical fashion. Writer-director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless, Divergent) slides his scale of scope, and those of his chosen artistic collaborators, way down. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak (Bumblebee) controls the movement and pace within the tight confines created by production designer Scott Chambliss (Star Trek). Even the nervy little score from Trevor Gureckis (The Goldfinch) screams understatement. In different hands, this could have easily been a bloated and overly expensive mess.
The same astuteness comes in casting. Farrell may be the big name, but he does not take over this movie. Rising ahead of him is an excellent and international cast of emerging talents. Sheridan, Depp, and Whitehead are the epitomes of that and the rightful triangular leads. They are bolstered by The Photograph breakout Chante Adams, Blinded by the Light’s luminary Viveik Kalra, Midsommar member Archie Madekwe, Quintessa Swindell of the upcoming Black Adam, and Bizaardvark’s Madison Hu in key roles. Someday, even if Voyagers isn’t the strongest film giving them maximum showcase, we may look back on this combined cast someday and see another The Outsiders, Flatliners, or Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Let’s circle back to sort that laundry basket of statically clinging “cut from the same cloth” pile of fabric samples from the opening paragraph. For its science fiction, Voyagers grabs a topical trajectory of our planet’s decline in habitability and creates an arc that has mankind searching for a new home. Interplanetary colonization ideas have been brought into movies before where shortcuts of statis are often used (think Passengers) before trouble-for-trouble’s sake arises to make movie moments.
Voyagers is unafraid to maintain the painful reality of time for its triple-generational timeline. Even with that weight in place, though, the movie tailspins with impatience. Rather than build with that ominous magnitude, its entire conflict feels like a brief weekend bender of bad choices, at best.
Returning to the organic humanity side, Voyagers is not shy about its inevitable comparisons to the motifs found in William Golding’s 1954 literary masterpiece Lord of the Flies. The story beats and overarching themes of hostile agitation between rationales/emotions, morality/immorality, peace/harmony within innocent people of impressionable ages all come into play in Burger’s screenplay.
Even then, and again with an unnecessary sprint in mind, Voyagers takes much of that heady material and devolves into a bullying fight of hard-ons to get girls and guns to win the duel of superiority. Slapping a “Lord of the Flies… in Space” tagline might be too cheap or too damning, but that slant is certainly there.
However, that’s where the audience and their frontal lobes take over. The last conflict discussed at the beginning was what different viewers will project out of all this against what is really there or what was really intended. One person is going to see substandard homages in a shiny futuristic setting that may or may not suit the basest carnality angles being thrusted. Another person is going to see profound commentaries on divergent Millennial attitudes of empathy and apathy, modern and likely politically-charged takes on groupthink and individuality, and any number of other possible influences.
Take whatever allegories and metaphors you get from Voyagers. Either run with them or dismiss them. See which ones stick. In the end, Burger’s film may join the lists of movies with great concepts but poor execution.