Some science-fiction junkies like me might be tempted to approach the new film “Voyagers” with a touch of caution. The movie’s first trailer showed off a fairly interesting premise and a cast rich with sparkling young talent. And then you have the description going around calling it “Lord of the Flies in space” which only added to the intrigue. Yet there was one nagging concern – an inescapable YA novel vibe that made it hard to get a handle on what kind of movie it was going to be.
“Voyagers” is written and directed by Neil Burger whose last movie was 2017’s “The Upside”, an American remake of the far superior French buddy drama “The Intouchables”. Originally slated for last year, “Voyagers” was bounced from its November 2020 release date by COVID-19 but finally opens in theaters this weekend. His latest has no shortage of big ideas and it asks some thought-provoking questions. At the same time you can’t help but think a deeper and slightly darker version of this movie would give some of its themes even more bite.
The movie is built upon the tried-and-true sci-fi premise of earth in peril and humanity needing to find a new home. In 2063 scientists find one, a planet believed to be suitable for colonization. But first they’ll need to send out a scouting mission to verify its habitability. It’s calculated to take 86 years to reach the new planet meaning the crew would never live to see the fruit of the labors. So earth’s scientists breed their own crew, bio-engineered with enhanced intelligence and pumped full of emotion suppressors. The idea is that once they are of age, the capable yet emotionally detached crew would reproduce during the voyage so that their grandchildren can one day set foot on the new world (not convinced of the math but that’s how the movie explains it). What could go wrong?
A reserved Colin Farrell plays Richard, the saturnine father figure, schoolmaster and chaperone for the thirty or so children as they go through education, training, and are eventually launched into space. Burger wastes no time bumping us up ten years into the mission which is where most of the story plays out. The young kids are now young adults coldly going about their work duties. Then two inquisitive crew members Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) discover the blue drink they consume as part of their daily routine contains a drug used for “impulse control”. It keeps the crew docile and focused; suppressing emotions, sexual urges, and so on.
From there it becomes pretty easy to see where Burger’s metaphor-heavy story is going. It quickly morphs into a compelling although sanitized case study on human nature, ugly warts and all. Christopher and Zac secretly stop taking the drug and are slowly introduced to a plethora of new emotions. The two friends handle these fresh feelings differently as seen clearest in their mutual attraction to young medical officer Sela (an effectively understated Lily-Rose Depp). As more crew members come off “the Blue”, previously untapped feelings of passion, jealousy, and aggression arise. Some handle it with restraint while others revert to the most primal of instincts. Soon factions form pitting rule versus anarchy and just like that humanity’s hope for a new society starts to crumble.
It’s hard to dismiss the profusion of cool ideas and the sheer potential teases something magnificent. Watching the emergence of one young person’s leadership and another’s sociopathy says interesting things about the human condition and chemical stabilizers. Watching the crew splinter as they discover their inner selves poses thoughtful questions about morality and depravity. Yet as engaging as it is, “Voyagers” remains remarkably subdued, easily fitting within its PG-13 rating but leaving so much unexplored. The movie makes its points and the symbolism is easy to decrypt. But far too much is left under the surface.
The film’s second half essentially tosses aside the cerebral suspense for a more action-thriller vibe (no doubt in hopes of grabbing a broader appeal). It ends up putting the cast in a tough spot, but committed performances from Sheridan, Depp, and Whitehead make it effortlessly watchable. The production design gives the ship a familiar yet elegant look with long sharply-lit halls and sterile suffocating spaces. But some visuals fall flat including a bland and uninspired spacewalk sequence and some of the most hilariously fake looking guns I’ve ever seen in a movie. It only reinforces the notion that “Voyagers” would have been better sticking to its semi-Kubrickian concepts. “Voyagers” opens tomorrow (April 9th) in theaters.
VERDICT – 3 STARS