Space: the final frontier. That’s how it used to be sold to us. Space travel would not only be an ever-present force in our lives but we would all live up in the stars one day. Our same human aptitude for science, that allows us to rocket across the galaxy, then realized it would soon become an imperative. That we ought to travel to space, not only as a final frontier, but with any hope of continuing the species. So, we have not produced much hopeful space fiction for teens anymore. It has become either a genre for adults or children: hard science, horror, or blockbusters with all the sense of picture books.
Voyagers sadly contributes to the dimming down of our literature. It is simply William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in space. The pedigree of Neil Burger helps explain the contents. He made the frivolous and disarmingly likable Limitless (2011), a film that engages with a culture that has become dependent on performance boosting stimulants. Voyagers offers an inverse of that premise. There’s a ship on an 86-year voyage to a new planet. The whole crew is cast from a Young Adult novel, an agreeably diverse group of beautiful actors, representing DNA-spliced replicants. For their entire lives, they’ve been given a blue-colored drink that makes them docile. The plan is that they would never experience anything but the simple trek through the stars, that they would be the perfect founding society for a new planet installation, with none of the problems of people back home. Until two of the crew members research their medicine and decide not to take it anymore, shedding the side effects, and feeling what it’s like to be a kid again: rambunctious, horny, and with nowhere to go.
Initially they are lead by Colin Farrell, uncharacteristically reserved, seemingly also on the blue drink. He may be one of this critic’s consistently appreciated actors, but his early exit from the film provides a vital lesson. Firstly, never go on a spacewalk to repair an internal issue with the ship. This never works out for anyone. Also, if you can get Colin Farrell in your movie, he is likely to be the best actor in it. Please don’t send him off into space right out of the gate. He’s not an Imposter.
Capably, the film has young performers who are at least game for the material. We continue to await a breakthrough performance for Fionn Whitehead, who emerged in Dunkirk (2017), although that was certainly not an Actor’s Movie. Tye Sheridan and Lily Rose-Depp are also enjoyable anytime they are on screen. These are pretty decent mid-range actors, who are misused on dialogue that lacks clarity, and is expository more often than it says anything about the characters themselves. I like the diversity of the rest of the cast, but also wish the film were brave enough to play with larger, more inclusive and diverse ideas, itself.
The film has a grave problem with any nature vs nurture reading that can be applied to it. When this whole spaceship of teens come off the substance, they all assume heteronormative relationships. The only possible reading is that the film believes anything else is a social construct, and could not be naturally replicated. It is a difficult and troubling proposition. What excuses the film, not of responsibility, but of further analysis and an ability to critique those themes, is that it has a very hard time staying with any of its myriad ideas.
This flighty space film will go from one larger overarching theme to the next, structurally understanding what is inside a book like Lord of the Flies but not how that story is told cohesively and naturally mirrors our understanding of human interaction. It’s a trying watch because Burger is afraid to commit to any idea within the material. There’s a fun premise here, and perhaps even this sterile teen space opera is worth executing, but a film that has not even examined itself is a one-way conversation. It does not offer any room for insights, because it does not have any curiosity itself.
The weight and breadth of the 86-year mission is never felt on-screen. There are some capable performers who underperform in this movie, let down by script and direction. Perhaps there is a tangible need for a lightweight teen space drama but Voyagers leaves a lot on the table. Remember: Colin Farrell is never expendable. His early exit from the film was all the warning we needed. The film was never able to recover from that.
The urge for Neil Burger is to sanitize and sterilize at every turn. Wherever Voyagers has the option to instill interest in its characters or plotting, it divests itself. There is always another plot waiting in the wings. Always another scenario to go halfway with, as the film hums along rapidly, like its ingested those very pills from Limitless. It is not an unmitigated disaster, in that it is basically watchable and has a few charming performers, and yet, it takes the PG-13, Young Adult route at every crossroads. Voyagers is a cynical film in that it truly denies itself any outsized moments, or anything for the audience to hook onto. It expects the audience to default to being interested in whatever it happens to be doing without proving any point to the proceedings.