On the one hand, the latest from writer/director Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist, Divergent), Voyagers, is a science fiction story that exists in a familiar scenario—the earth is soon going to become uninhabitable, and a planet has been found far away that can apparently sustain life, so a team of explorers must be sent into space to begin the colonization process while the rest of Earth prepares to follow. But the twist is that the mission will take more than 80 years, so those in charge (at least in charge of America, since everyone in the film seems to be American) decide that the only way for the mission to work is to breed an entire generation of males and females from the most intelligent and healthy stock and train them to be obedient and mission-centric, because they will have to breed in space, and it will be their children and grandchildren who will ultimately complete the mission.
A man named Richard (Colin Farrell) is in charge of training this first generation of voyagers, and he eventually convinces those running the mission that he should be allowed to accompany them into space and make sure things run smoothly, even though he will likely be the first to die of old age. The kids are never allowed contact with anyone outside their group, and before long, they are off. Skipping ahead several years into the mission, all seems well. Tye Sheridan (from the more recent X-Men movies) plays Christopher, the chief engineer, who discovers that a drink they are all given on a daily basis is actually a drug that dampens their hormones and keeps strong emotions like desire and anger from them while dampening their energy just enough to keep them docile but still highly productive.
Christopher tells his friend Zac (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk), and the two decide to stop taking the drug, which begins to change them almost immediately, giving them more means of expression but also causing them to notice the female crew members in new ways. One of the reasons the kids were given the drugs was because they didn’t want the crew to reproduce naturally. Frozen samples were collected and were going to be used artificially at the right time, but now being off the drug has caused Zac to break protocol and begin thinking that touching the girls whenever he wants is okay. To be fair, as far as we can tell, he was never taught that such touching was bad because those designing these missions never thought this would be an issue. Still, Zac knows better; he’s just of a mind off the drug that he should be able to do whatever he wants when he wants to whomever he wants.
Christopher knows it’s best to keep their newfound feelings quiet for the time being, but when he’s directly confronted by Richard, he admits to being off the drug and that he’s enjoying the results. When a repair mission outside the ship goes wrong under mysterious circumstances, Richard is killed, and some believe it was by an alien force that threatens the rest of the crew. And before long, all of the kids are off their medication and factions begin to form around Christopher and Zac, in a type of Lord of the Flies situation. They begin to fight over food, resources, and whether they should even care about the mission, since they likely won’t be there to see it through.
Voyagers exists almost entirely as an allegory. Being off the drug is meant to show us what human nature is in its rawest form. With impulse control turned off and several years of hormones suddenly released into this environment at once, the worst parts of male behavior begin to emerge, and the ship falls into disrepair with carefully rationed supplies getting wasted. Zac repeatedly harasses the chief medical officer Sela (Lily-Rose Depp), and Christopher has to rescue her repeatedly, even pretending that he has somehow claimed her to throw Zac off her scent. The primal nature of everything gets fairly distasteful at times, but in most cases, it’s both the men and women who are exploring the boundaries (or lack thereof) in their new feelings towards each other.
Still, the first person Zac truly lashes out at, calling her ugly and telling her to keep her opinions to herself, is a black female crew member. He effectively takes power of the crew away from Christopher with talk of an imaginary alien on board that jumps from body to body, so anyone might be the alien, giving him license to throw distrust and fear around as a means of controlling his followers. The film quite perceptively uses the concept that dictators need an enemy—real or imagined—in order to keep power, even if the idea is obvious. Even when evidence that Zac has been lying about several things is presented, not everyone is convinced that the alien isn’t real, and things go from argumentative to outright violent, a transformation made all the worse by the discovery of a cache of weapons hidden on the ship.
Even with the fate of future generations and humanity on the line, these little bastards put their immediate needs ahead of all else, and sadly this behavior has very real parallels in today’s world when you look at things like climate change or even the pandemic. For many, what “I” want to do supersedes what is best for others or the planet, and Voyagers gets that even if it feels fairly narrow in its approach. While the setup of Voyagers is solid, the follow-through stumbles, and the film becomes a fairly generic cat-and-mouse game, with Christopher and his team attempting to get control of the ship while taking Zac out of his leadership position. The film becomes a series of power grabs that are varying degrees of dramatic, curious and mostly entertaining.
Maybe this period is necessary for the kids to go through in order to experience all that life is, both good and bad, and truly see what being a human is all about. Sheridan and Depp have a great quiet intensity that they use beautifully here, while Whitehead is more a traditional super villain with a broken moral compass and a whole lot of new feelings in his extremities, so I grew tired of watching his antics. The film’s production design and general tone are solid, but it’s not quite enough to elevate the movie to greater heights. It’s a close call for me, but the strength of most of the actors is what pushes me into mildly recommending it.
Voyagers is now playing in theaters.
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