Note: The writer of this review watched Voyagers on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
If nothing else, Hollywood’s latest space odyssey, Voyagers, devises a novel solution to the conundrum of intergalactic travel, that old equation of distance versus time. The film is set in 2063, when the eggheads of an increasingly uninhabitable Earth have begun planning for a new start beyond the stars. They’ve found a planet that can sustain human life. Trouble is, it’ll take 86 years to get there. How will anyone survive long enough to establish mankind’s new home? In the sci-fi of yore, the greatest fictional minds at fictionalized NASA looked to cryogenic sleep, wormholes, and accelerated speed to cross the vast expanse of the cosmos without croaking en route. In Voyagers, the strategy is much more long term: The crew will be made up of children, who will grow up aboard the ship and then have their own children, who will in turn grow up to birth and raise the grandchildren who will resettle the species. Instead of leaving the world a better place for future generations, they’re leaving the world for a better place, to be inherited and colonized by their descendants.
Most of Voyagers is set 10 years after launch. The crew, born and bred from anonymous donors for the sole purpose of completing the mission, have grown from test-tube babies into spookily remote automatons—they’re like private-school wunderkinds with the disposition of sheltered Amish youth. Supervising their one-way trip is the ship’s captain and head of the project, Richard (Colin Farrell), who’s settled into the uncomfortable role of all-purpose authority figure: He is father, boss, teacher, therapist. To keep everyone on task and out of trouble, the teens are administered glasses of something called The Blue—a liquid that, like the mandatory medication of Lois Lowry’s dystopian middle-school staple The Giver, suppresses the more intense emotions and natural desires of growing boys and girls. But what will happen once humanity’s last, adolescent hope stops taking the chemical equivalent of a cold shower?
Anyone weaned on a steady diet of stories about life in a tin can floating through the unknown can probably anticipate the trajectory—the psychological, technological, and potentially extraterrestrial obstacles faced by these interstellar homeschool kids. Why cite every antecedent? That way space madness lies. Better to scan Voyagers for allegorical meaning; there’s no shortage of that in the tribal discord that erupts from its ominous hush. As these YA astronauts get in touch with their baser instincts—a journey that begins with some exploratory groping, before devolving into what teen spirit authority Kurt Cobain once called territorial pissings—the film suggests a classic classroom rebellion tale sucked into sci-fi space. Is the kids’ primal pivot a metaphor for a sudden flush of pubescent hormones, and maybe the general disillusionment that sometimes accompanies them? Another way among several to read the film is as a drama about one generation pitted against the expectations of another—about Zoomers (in spirit if not era) pushing back against the environmental and professional obligations created by the failures of their elders.
The problem with Voyagers is that its power is entirely allegorical. The more the film begins to resemble a deep-space Lord Of The Flies—complete with fabled beast, ostracized Piggy, and urgent chases across the futuristic version of a secluded island— the more predictable it becomes. Neil Burger, director at the helm of this hurtling vessel, gives the conventions a seductive sheen of utilitarian plausibility: He’s made a zero-G thriller that’s at once handsome, in its cosmic and cosmetic design, and claustrophobically believable in how unglamorous it makes space travel appear. What he hasn’t done is tapped the audience into the sensorial awakening that drives the plot. Burger attempts to express that experience through feverish montage flashes of crashing water, pouncing animals, blossoming flowers, and dilating pupils. It’s basically the same way he visualized ballooning intellect in Limitless—“expanding the mind” as a music-video supercut of stock B-roll culled from a database.
Maybe the film’s escalating conflict would be more exciting if the characters themselves (played by the likes of Tye Sheridan and Lily-Rose Depp, among an ensemble of fellow twentysomething model types) weren’t such blank-eyed nothings. That is, to be fair, by design: We’re following a group of literal born saviors, living lives devoted only to grand duty and scientific protocol. Of course they’d be awkwardly socialized robot teens with no personalities. But the film’s climactic scramble, its war between rational responsibility and hedonistic rejection of it, never gains more than an abstract pulse, because the young Americans taking sides in the struggle are so interchangeable. (Only Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead, as the power-mad schemer of a villain, makes much of an impression.) Voyagers is slick and diverting enough and even occasionally artful in its vision of a future put in the hands of kids wrestling with the burden of their importance to it. But it’s also a story about the fight for humanity that makes humanity itself theoretical, just like the scientists in the film who dreamt up its misguided experiment in galactic manifest destiny.