Mankind’s obsession with leaving Earth in search of greener frontiers is a relatable enough concept to make the basic premise of Neil Burger’s Voyagers at least halfway believable. In the near future, the film posits that if a planet with sustainable life on it did exist, and if it could only be reached via a one-way, generation-spanning odyssey, then of course we’d have to send a test-tube-bred litter of trained colonist teens led by Colin Farrell (The Batman).
The point of Voyagers is the most interesting thing about it. In order to ensure a successful mission, a few dozen children are literally raised in a confined simulation — never to experience the outside world, lest they someday lose their sanity — until the day they launch for their 86-year mission, ensuring they likely won’t even see the fruits of their sacrifice, which is one they didn’t even choose or volunteer for, of course. The film mainly follows the journey about 10 years in, when its percolating, college-aged crew begins to question the “program” from mission control that guides their every move, including a daily consumption of a mysterious blue liquid that likely got its FDA requirements from The Giver.
It’s all a metaphor, you see. Trouble starts when two of the most skeptical voyagers, Christopher (Ready Player One‘s Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Dunkirk‘s Fionn Whitehead), begin to stretch their until-now dulled impulses and act on the many pleasures they’ve unknowingly been missing. Soon, the entire ship begins to take their lead, with the exception of Phoebe (Chanté Adams, Roxanne Roxanne), who is a true believer of the ship’s rules, and Sela (Lily-Rose Depp, The King), the ship’s chief medic, whom Christopher and Zac eventually pine for competitively.
The rest of the film’s moving parts are about as predictable as you’d expect from a movie pitched to be “Lord of Flies” in space. Granted, there are post-modern flourishes clearly added to mimic the fear-mongering rhetoric of contemporary politics, which happen to be among the film’s few poignant themes. But even these diverging directions tend to fall flat due to Voyagers‘ insistence on making each and every character absolutely sterile when it comes to charisma and growth. You’d be hard-pressed to believe this microcosm of humanity has enough chemistry to effectively reproduce, which is the plan if their mission is to succeed.
There’s an almost nihilistic bent to the film in its bombastic second act, when the crew really lets loose and runs wild about the ship, proving out a decent message about how bottling up freedom and ecstasy can backfire tremendously, particularly for kids who are raised in harshly sheltered environments, only to fall way behind on learning and practicing mature impulse control when they step out on their own for the first time. To its credit, Voyagers has a clear eye on these ideas and demonstrates them more through visuals than plain exposition, specifically in how the production design and cinematography of the ship gradually transforms over time to match the mood and excitement of its residents. Hallways that feel small and almost like a prison in one scene later expand and exhibit a maze of possibilities, all without a single character having to claim it so.
But because the film only chooses to add dimensions to (maybe) two characters, the stakes of keeping this ship afloat consistently fall short. Just about everyone onboard has a single adjective to describe them thoroughly and accurately, from the fearful Edward (Isaac Hempstead Wright, Game of Thrones) to the vengeful Kai (Archie Madekwe, Midsommar). As a parable, Voyagers wants us to see ourselves in the primal urges of these wide-eyed wanderers, who have to weigh the futile dead end of their journey with a deep desire to “feel” their surroundings in ways they were previously denied. But because their circumstances are walled off from us, they’re beyond any sort of approachable understanding for the average viewer. Where their personalities are informed by the idea of behavior and individual expression, their collective comeuppance and lack of said individualism by the film’s dry, hallway-rushing final act makes this a baffling sermon to a grounded choir.
At its best, Voyagers is a slick, contained cautionary tale about holding people back from their most basic instincts, while simultaneously exploring the harsher consequences of giving in too deeply to selfish mindsets and the terrifying implications of unrestrained hedonism. But at its worst, Voyagers is a fairly predictable, overly familiar journey that lacks any satisfying destination for all those involved.
Lionsgate will release Voyagers in theaters on April 9.
Photo Credit: Vlad Cioplea