Over the last decade or so, space angst has pretty much become its own genre. Interstellar, Moon, Ad Astra, First Man, Gravity, High Life… the list goes on. (Of course, you could go as far back as to say 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I appreciate how these films have seemed to pick up steam lately.) I tend to really like this type of movie. When you put characters into a small, confined space, they’re forced to deal with problems either internally (Moon, Ad Astra) or with each other (High Life, Interstellar). This usually makes for some interesting work, both visually and thematically. Because of course, from space, there’s a whole new perspective towards life on earth which allows the characters to come to conclusions about love, humanity, relationships, god, and lots of other things, depending on how the filmmaker wants to address the topic.
But up until now, apart from popular Y.A. fiction like Divergent or Ender’s Game, we haven’t really gotten one of these movies about teens. Neil Burger’s (who did also direct Divergent) Voyagers attempts to bring this excellent subgenre to a slightly younger audience. It’s already being called Lord of the Flies in space, and while that may be true, I think it takes away from the quality of the movie itself. Saying something is just “this, here” isn’t always engaging with the thing on its own merits. And while it may be quite similar in its premise, it’s not exactly a one-to-one comparison.
Voyagers follows a crew of genetically engineered teenage astronauts and Richard (Colin Farrell), the one adult “leader,” as they embark on a voyage (get it? Like the title) to a new planet that is habitable for humans. The teenagers, who have all grown into highly intelligent and highly attractive young adults, were raised on Earth inside a facility and apart from civilization where they never got to experience the wonders that Earth has to offer. This allows them to not miss their home the way Richard does since he grew up on the planet and lived there well into his adult life. It’s also meant as a way to give them a sense of life fulfillment since their entire lives will be spent traveling through space — their grandkids will be the first generation to even reach their planetary destination.
The teenagers are given a shot of a blue liquid (dubbed “The Blue”) every morning as they do their tasks around the ship. They’re told The Blue is a vitamin they need to stay healthy, but unbeknownst to them, it contains a drug that dampens their senses and keeps their actions tame and their personalities dull. This, paired with the dark blue jumpsuits the entire crew always wears creates uniformity among the crew that doesn’t allow them to stand out from each other. But when Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) decide they’re done with The Blue, they stop taking it and immediately feeling like humans typically do.
Christopher and Zac find joy in running through the hallways, experience real anger and frustration with each other, and least surprisingly, an attraction for the ship’s medical officer Sela (Lily-Rose Depp). Soon, Christopher and Zac convince the rest of the crew to stop taking The Blue. They’re full of anger towards Richard and are planning to confront him about why he’s been lying to them their entire lives.
Here is where the film goes off the rails, but in a good(ish) way. It explores (or at least waves at) many interrelated themes: nature versus nurture, lies, fear, and conspiracy, morality, and even democracy. It uses the confined setting to really bloat up and expedite everything it’s interested in exploring. The crew splits into two sides — one led by Christopher that wants to keep doing things the right way even with the newly-revealed truth about The Blue, and the other led by Zac that wants to completely rebel and that espouses a philosophy of ruling by fear and intimidation.
Voyagers isn’t quite as good as it wants to be — it has a lot of ideas it tries to at least hint at, but it never really commits to one or two as the main idea of the movie. But still, the film is fascinating at the very least. It aspires to a certain cinematic flair and style from the beginning and sticks with it the entire time, and it really works. This isn’t technically a horror movie, but it definitely has overtones of a psychological thriller.
There is just way too much going on plot-wise for it to hammer home its point and story the way it wants to, and if looking for an entertaining sci-fi romp instead of existential questions mixed with some young adult horniness, this one may not be for you. As the lights came up in the theater, a man stood up and announced, “That was one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a long time,” while I stood up thinking about how it was much better than it really had any right to be.
Farrell takes a backseat to the younger stars like Sheridan, Whitehead, and Depp, and they’re not exactly able to elevate the material. I’m not sure whether that’s more a knock on them or the writing. Depp is probably the standout of the three, but she’s given the least to do since she’s simply relegated to the role of the girl that the boys like mixed with a voice of reason. I was longing for more from Sheridan because I’ve seen what he can do as an actor with The Stanford Prison Experiment and even Ready Player One, but movies like Voyagers and the X-Men franchise don’t maximize his abilities. And the most tragic of these three is Whitehead who showed that he could act in Dunkirk, but is given the most basic and formulaic villain character to play in Voyagers, and I only slightly hold that against him.
There was promise with Voyagers, and it lives up to the promise in a lot of ways. But in other ways, you’re left wishing it could done more. It’s worth a watch if only due to the fact that many of the people involved will hopefully go on to do bigger and better things (with the exception of Farrell, who’s already done so much in his great career). This will be one to look back on in the future as a great display of raw, but unrefined potential.