2021 | rated PG-13 | starring Ty Sheridan, Colin Ferrell, Lily-Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead, Isaac Hempstead Wright | written & directed by Neil Berger | 1 hr 48 mins |
Voyagers is a movie that looks great on paper. An interesting take on a tried-and-true sci-fi concept with a clever premise. In the near future, mankind has discovered a distant planet that can sustain human life and devises a plan to make an exploratory trip to it, a trip that will last 80 years. It becomes clear that an entire generation will need to be raised adapted to the confined isolation of space travel with the expectation that their grandchildren colonize the new planet. 30 children, 15 boys and girls, are genetically engineered and then raised in a lab, learning the objectives from a single father figure, Richard (Colin Ferrell). But as the trip gets more perilous, the group leans they are being drugged and lust, fear, paranoia and jealousy start to take control, reverting the ship to a crew of savages that must fight their primal instincts to recover the mission.
Voyagers refreshingly removes the sci-fi plot device of cryogenically freezing astronauts from long space travel and pontificates how you would make the journey without it. An idea that by necessity involves sending teenagers into space without any memory of Earth – wind, the sun, community, being outside at all – to miss and then pairing them up to procreate for a future generation that will reap the benefits they will not. It’s fascinating and it’s in Voyagers’ first act when it works itself through the logistics of all this that it is at it’s high.
Naturally, things have to go wrong with the journey and it’s here where director Neil Berger slips into an barely there Man-Playing-God story. The teens are being drugged with a blue beverage that suppresses their hormones. One day Zac (Fionn Whitehead, not Finn Wolfhard) lets curiosity take hold and ditches the drink only to be flooded with hormones and desires for the girls on the ship. Zac will ultimately rebel against the elected mission leader Christopher (Ty Sheridan, Ready Player One) and spark a rebellion, much of which centers around a battle for the affection of Sela (Lily-Rose Depp). That Voyagers becomes a space-set Lord of the Flies in it’s third act is as clever as it is predictable. The sci-fi upgrade works, even with the island kid’s feared hog beast replaced with rumors that an alien might be outside the ship to rile up the crew. The conch shell? Here, he who has the laser gun is king.
Berger however executes this without the passion and intensity it deserves. The characters are flat, yes, however, that’s wrapped into the premise when your lead characters were designed in a lab to not have personalities. With that known crutch something else will need to pick up the personality slack and drive the film. Berger has always seemed like a studio director who fancies himself an indie auteur taking movies like The Illusionist, Limitless and the remake The Upside and trying to elevate them outside of their genre trappings with unsatisfying and frustrating results (though I am partial to the insanity of Limitless). Voyagers feels more like that then any movie I’ve seen recently. It’s unclear if Berger is trying to make an art film and is trapped in the PG-13 limitations of a studio mandated teen dystopian movie – or if he’s using the appearance of a PG-13 teen dystopian movie to subvert those tropes by design. Either way the final product is one that doesn’t come together because the movie is at odds with itself. The film’s dating-teens-friendly rating shackles it from the savage violence and sexual exploration that this kind of story requires, limiting Berger to bizarre scenes of sexual suggestion like one where Whitehead sticks his thumb in a girl’s mouth while everyone watches in confusion.
The other issue is that Berger was beaten to the punch in outlandish fashion by Clare Denis’ High Life. The adult thriller, where Robert Pattinson raised a young child after a mission went to hell, also explored facilitating sexual desire on a long space travel, famously featuring Juliette Binoche riding an orgasmatron in a darkroom. Still, what I appreciated about Voyagers is how it traces the fall of their little space society. The very impulses that keep Berger from making a crowd-pleasing genre movie, also allow him to take the time to sketch out the slow rot of the crew. Other Lord of the Flies parables (Blindness, any Twilight Zone episode or Stephen King adaptation come to mind), are always based in the assumption that human beings are inherently animals, that left to their own devices will become savages. This is more Hollywood trope than it is real human psychology. Hollywood has constructed a cliche to make people think we are one power outage away from social collapse. This is proven to be not true with every natural disaster around the world. Point being, Voyagers traces this collapse not through reactionary violence, religious paranoia or a lack of resources, but through lust and jealousy – basically all of the things that would naturally pop up in a peaceful, non-violent “utopian” society centered around love.
Berger doesn’t play the premise out to it’s most interesting conclusion settling for a third act where kids with laser guns set on PG-13 mode chase each other through narrow hallways and an ending that is literally rushed, giving no thought to the end of the journey where so much was given to the beginning.