Voyagers, the new sci-fi film from writer-director Neil Burger (Divergent), begins with an interesting twist on a tried and true premise: Earth is screwed. Disease, climate change, and more have doomed humanity unless it can find a new home. Which, luckily, it does. The problem is it’ll take 86 years to travel there.
Obviously, 86 years is more than many people’s lifetimes so scientists come up with a fairly shocking solution. They’ll grow children in a lab, train them, never let them see the outside world so they won’t have any attachments, then send those isolated kids, now teenagers, into space. Those teens will eventually grow up to have kids, those kids will have kids, and eventually, the children and grandchildren of the original group will make it to our new planet.
Voyagers tells this story mainly through three characters: Christopher (Ready Player One’s Tye Sheridan), Sela (Yoga Hosers’ Lily-Rose Depp), and Zac (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’s Fionn Whitehead), each of whom rise to various leadership roles in this group of several dozen kids. They’re also overseen by Richard (Colin Farrell), one of the scientists behind the experiment, who gives up his Earth life to help them on their way.
As all this gets set up, your mind will obviously start racing with the many potential problems this plan has. Can you really make kids do this? Won’t they get restless? How would you feel if you realized your entire life has been cut off from reality and your purpose is merely to have babies and die? Would you consider saving humanity an honor or a curse? All those fascinating possibilities and more are the best part of Voyagers, and the premise is incredibly ripe for exploration. However, once those threads begin to unravel, Burger’s story takes them in so many recognizable ways that while the film is watchable and interesting, it’s ultimately disappointing.
We’ve seen this sort of epic, deep-space journey to save Earth a million times—the same with people in space isolation losing control or when there’s a chance they might not actually be alone on the ship. There is another twist to add to Voyager’s familiar tale, but it was revealed in the trailers: Christopher and Zac realize everyone on board is being drugged to suppress their feelings. The friends decide to go off the drugs and eventually other kids do too—imagine what happens when a few dozen teenagers go from being docile, quiet vessels to full-blown, horny teenagers in a matter of days. It’s not good, but it’s great for the film.
All of that confusion, anger, emotion, and discovery sets up lots of tension, some of which borders on uncomfortable in terms of how the men react to the women. Luckily, those moments begin to inform who these characters actually are when not drugged. The chemicals may have made them complacent, but not all of them remain so after the drugs wear off. In fact, some of them actually are bad people, especially when they begin to realize the lives they were denied by the scientists. Eventually, lines are drawn and things only escalate from there.
That Voyagers turns into Lord of the Flies in space both works and it doesn’t. On one hand, it’s not necessarily where you saw this sci-fi story going (unless you watched the trailers). On the other hand, we’ve seen this type of division time and time again and Burger’s take doesn’t exactly land. The “bad” guys start to push outright lies and false narratives, and use fear of the other in their favor—which, in this context, feels very familiar through the lens of modern social commentary. The idea works for forwarding the story, but ultimately the film doesn’t use it to say anything of particular merit or interest. It’s just the same old stuff. Important stuff, but well-covered elsewhere.
Voyagers basically comes too little, too late. Not by design, though, more by circumstance. The film was originally supposed to come out a little after the 2020 election. At that time, its sci-fi setting for a social war ignited by fear and difference might have felt a little more fresh and poignant, especially considering it was certainly written many years prior. Unfortunately, due to its covid-19 delay, it now plays more like overkill. Another person saying another thing you’ve heard over and over and, frankly, are a little tired of.
That’s not to say there aren’t good things about Voyagers. Lily-Rose Depp’s performance, in particular, is excellent as she keeps her emotions in check despite the escalating tension. While the men around her just kind of get more annoying and intense, she seems to grow not just in terms of her passion, but as a person. Whitehead too stands out as he becomes increasingly off-putting and scary, but that’s in large part because he’s given the meatiest role. Sheridan is fine opposite both of them, but he’s the rock and doesn’t get as much to do character-wise. On the technical side, the production design by Scott Chambliss is noteworthy; he makes this sterile ship that’s the entire world for these kids feel simultaneously constrictive but also pleasant. In addition, the cinematography by Enrique Chediak makes great use of that space, using light to differentiate multiple areas of the vessel as well as character feelings.
Voyagers is something younger audiences might find fascinating if they haven’t seen as many films with these types of stories. It’s well-made, well-intentioned, and filled with mind-blowing possibilities. However, for most people, this rehash of narratives and themes we’ve seen so many times will undercut solid performances and lots of wasted potential.
Voyagers opens in theaters Friday (io9 viewed the film via a digital screener).
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