It’s not hard to see what’s coming at the end of Voyagers, but like all things, it’s about the journey and not the destination. Thankfully, both aspects of this doltish sci-fi are equally worthless. Its central mission comes about because, due to global warming, humanity will have to abandon ship. The first step in that process is a mission that’ll take 86 years and necessitate its crew’s reproduction. So, a diverse group of American kids (naturally, the main characters are still the same ol’ interchangeable white folks while everyone else fulfills sideline stock roles), created through some sort of barely addressed eugenics program, are shot into space, their only purpose being to procreate and prepare their descendants to scout a presumably inhabitable planet. Writer/director Neil Burger, a filmmaker whose stints in vapid YA (Divergent) and treacle (The Upside) seem to most inform Voyagers, is in rare form here: Everything in the film is done worse than the media it mimics.
The crux of the sci-fi is a nature vs. nurture debate tackled by stories both classic (Lord of the Flies, Voyagers’ most obvious influence) and recent (Raised by Wolves). What is natural for people? Laziness? Aggression? Justice? Order? What Voyagers suggests is that, left to their own devices, humans raised in isolation will revert to movie tropes.
The scientific expedition/thought experiment adds an additional wrinkle when Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) figure out that, as an additional safeguard to the already outrageously unethical creation and brainwashing of these kids, the ship’s passengers are being drugged to tamp down potentially problematic feelings. Each kid drains a daily glass of “blue” that keeps them in check. It’s like The Giver or THX-1138 or Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House” or—well, you get the picture. “Decreased pleasure response? I want increased pleasure,” Zac says, somehow keeping a straight face.
That line’s indicative of the utterly silly script, which sci-fi fans will love to poke holes through. How did this organization not see this potentiality coming? Why would they ever allow Colin Farrell’s ultra-dad and his stockpile of Earth mementos to accompany kids specifically raised away from human society? The subdued aesthetic, all digital displays and white interiors, doesn’t do much to distract from these nagging questions, which only get harder to ignore as the film goes on.
As soon as they start skipping their meds—a la Brave New World or…ok, ok, I’ll stop doing this—they start doing whatever comes naturally, be that fantasizing about Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) or wrestling in the exercise room. The changes (immediate and unfettered by conditioning or withdrawal) come signified by rapid montages of Earthling home video footage and flashes of stereotypical imagery: Flowers bloom, hairs stand on end, waves churn. They somehow want what they’ve never had and know nothing of: Sex, violence, sensation. After one skipped dose, they’re so hungry for novelty that they’re zapping each other with live wires and making out in the cafeteria. Will this turn into some kind of weird space-Crank by way of Gaspar Noé?
Pretty wild stuff considering that before this, they all start off as interchangeable, robotic figures whose stoic faces mirror their shared monochrome uniform. It seems that throughout their extended childhood/training, they never got any sort of socialization nor developed any personalities. That emotionlessness translates to actors without much to do, with everyone turning in wooden performances (through no real fault of the performers themselves, who all fall in line with their dull characters) besides Whitehead’s Zac, who—as soon as he’s off the drug—instantly becomes a slimy sociopath. A bit irresponsible and shortsighted for humanity’s last hope to be a stolid group that turns out to be one step away from reverting to horny id monkeys.
Well, ok, you say. Let’s see how this weird horndog story plays out, I guess. But Voyagers isn’t content to let its drama unfold. That might mean having to do something with its characters. So, there’s also the rumor of an external force that may or may not be threatening its inhabitants. (Another full-scale lift from Flies). POV shots tracking through the ship’s corridors creep up on unsuspecting passengers, score mounting like a slasher—as if they didn’t have enough to deal with already.
Needless to say, the film quickly abandons its orgiastic (yet obviously always PG-13) sensory explorations in favor of a tired tale of desperate factionalism—just in case you were worried that the film might actually push some unique boundaries. Its action is shot shakily and without meaningful attempts at comprehensibility; its lust is shot with a bit more tactile interest, but with the unnatural barriers of the ratings system keeping things constrained. Moral debates feebly come up in obvious scenes that screech the film to a halt, but from the very premise to its ultimately cowardly conclusion, Voyagers is clearly only interested in the most simplistic and titillating angles of its setting: Airlocks, secret caches, security footage. Ideas of civilization, of morality and colonization—of what it means when we think of humanity forming a new home—are ironically far from this sci-fi’s mind.
The reason it’s so easy to get hung up on all the facile writing is because the film is so dull—a result of narrative predictability and aesthetic familiarity. These stark white walls have kept many more interesting premises and compelling characters sequestered in the lonely vacuum of space. We start picking at contradictions just for something to pass the time.
Lord of the Flies was a provocative (if flawed and cynical) work because of the inherent imperfections in humanity’s social structures. When kids are raised inhumanly—isolated from society and trained from birth by computers for a single mission—and face what amounts to the same scenario, that relevance disappears. It becomes less a commentary on human nature and more a critique of a narrative’s own contrivances. And as far as criticism goes, the tedious and trite, regressive and ridiculous Voyagers doesn’t need any more than it’s already going to get.
Director: Neil Burger
Writer: Neil Burger
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead, Colin Farrell, Chanté Adams, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Viveik Kalra, Archie Renaux, Archie Madekwe, Quintessa Swindell
Release Date: April 9, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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