Voyagers a Sci-Fi Trip into the Emotionally Twitterpated Unknown
Something of an interstellar Lord of the Flies, after a somewhat rushed and lumpy start Neil Burger’s science fiction thriller Voyagers rights the ship and ends up traveling to an emotionally satisfying place. While almost none of what transpires is a surprise, the film is solidly crafted and features a handful of strong performances from its mostly young cast of relative newcomers.
The Earth is slowly dying and there is nothing humanity can do about it. After discovering a planet in a distant galaxy capable of sustaining human life, plans are made to build and launch a ship capable of making the long journey. Piloted by scientists and colonists, it is determined the crew will be made up of genetically engineered children who will have no concept of the Earth they are leaving behind.
Why? The trip will take 86 years. Those initially at the controls will be grandparents (if they are still alive at all) by the time their expedition ends. Not only will their job be to ensure the vessel reaches its intended destination; they will also be the ones who will ensure the human race carries on. In fact, the only adult joining them will be Richard (Colin Farrell), a scientist with no family who has raised all of these kids from the moment of their conception.
The majority of the story takes place roughly a decade later, the kids all inquisitive teenagers diligently carrying out their various jobs with Richard as their fatherly mission commander answering their questions and trying to keep adolescent problems to a minimum. Two things destroy the relative calm. The first is the discovery by two crewmembers, Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead), that part of their daily meal is being drugged. The second is a mysterious tragedy that leaves them without a leader.
It’s not hard to figure out what happens from there. The crew will split into two dueling camps, one led by the kindhearted Christopher, the other following Zac who is drunk on power and determined to do whatever it takes to keep it. No longer drugged, the kids find their libidos going into overdrive and their emotions jumping from high to low to all points in-between without any guardrails to keep them from careening out of control. It’s a mess, and unless a solution is found their entire mission will be in mortal jeopardy.
Burger’s career has been a series of notable successes (The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones) and calamitous misfires (Divergent, The Upside) and not much else. That Voyagers inhabits some sort of reasonably entertaining middle ground is relatively new for the filmmaker. He stages a couple of terrific set-pieces, not the least of which is a dangerous spacewalk by Richard and Christopher to fix a broken transmitter (queue up Thus Spoke Zarathustra). Burger also comes up with a mystery involving a potential alien menace inhabiting the ship, and the way Zac manipulates many of his fellow shipmates by utilizing their fear of this indescribable “other” is relatively well done.
The visual effects are outstanding, and Trevor Gureckis’ (The Goldfinch) thunderous score borders on perfection. Scott Chambliss’ (Star Trek) production design reminded me a bit too much of the somewhat thematically similar Passengers, but it still fits the bill well enough that I can’t hold it against the finished film. Almost all of the technical facets are exceptional, and from a purely visual perspective I found it hard not to be impressed.
What I did not care for was the heavy-handed moralizing or the heteronormative didacticism of the relationships. With all these raging teenage hormones, that there is no experimentation happening beyond the binary is unfortunate. This does allow Burger to create something of a “lust” triangle between Christopher, Zac and the ship’s medical officer Sela (Lily-Rose Depp), but even that relies far too much on the threat of forced intimacy between the parties that’s tiredly reductive and boringly exploitive.
That I can somewhat look past this has a lot to do with how Burger stages many of the more dramatic and suspenseful sequences. It is also due to the performances of the primary cast, and not just Sheridan, Whitehead and Depp. There are some nice moments from a bevy of diverse fresh faces, most notably Chanté Adams, Quintessa Swindell and Archie Madekwe, all of whom do a fine job of making their brief appearances meaningful.
Is all of that enough to warrant the price of a matinee ticket? I think so, but those iffy elements due substantively weigh on me. But the positives come close to being out of this world, which for me made making this trip with Voyagers into the emotionally twitterpated adolescent unknown worthwhile.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)