Marketed as “Lord of the Flies in space”, Voyagers – whilst occasionally leaning in to that description – is a confused genre effort that feels like a more reflective, psychological film has been edited down to a tween crowd who may appreciate its melodramatic personality.
Written and directed by Neil Burger, his first original script since 2008’s little seen The Lucky Ones, Voyagers starts on a promising enough note as it details that in the year 2063 the Earth’s population finally find a habitat fit for survival on a neighbouring planet, following threatening years of disease and drought. It isn’t the most original basis, but it’s topical and feels ripe for narrative possibilities.
Intending to colonise this new planet with a select group of men and women who have been essentially bred for intelligence and obedience, the 80+ year expedition means the children on board won’t grow up to see their new surroundings, with their children and grandchildren the intended civilisation. It’s grim but it’s scientific, and the children on board have been manufactured indoors in the government’s best bid to climatise them; they can’t miss the joy of being outdoors if they’ve never been given the chance.
Opting to accompany the children on the mission is Richard (Colin Farrell), volunteering himself in both a bid to accelerate the program and live out his days amongst the very people he has dedicated his life, thus far, to forming. The three children that garner particular focus in Burger’s story are Christopher (Tye Sheridan), Sela (Lily-Rose Depp), and Zac (Fionn Whitehead), who we all properly meet as teenagers, all rather docile and law-abiding students whose compliance regarding their roles on the ship ultimately begins the narrative on its journey.
Given that Christopher and Zac uncover the truth behind a particular liquid they’ve all been programmed to drink and, in an act of teen rebellion, opt out, discovering that their hormones and senses have been subdued this whole time, Voyagers soon shifts from its simple beginnings to something potentially more horrific, touching on the thematics of a person’s right to choose. At least, it could be horrific if Burger hadn’t decided to focus on tween drama that results in a lot of misguided dialogue and unintentional hilarity; further playing into the fact that the film feels like it has been edited down to suit a younger audience, the insults Zac and his eventual underlings hurl at the more obedient crew members are the most vanilla of phrases, immediately removing any true threat his character is supposed to harbour.
Ultimately the film dwindles down to a Zac vs Christopher mentality, with the former throwing his machismo around – even if he is laughable in his physical imposition – whilst the latter hopes common sense will prevail, even though we know that’s entirely unlikely due to the fact that the majority of the remaining teens on board are all similarly experiencing surges of hormones and rebellion they’re unsure how to navigate; there’s also some rubbish thrown about regarding an alien life role on board, but it amounts to such nonsense that it isn’ worth investigating.
Whilst the Lord of the Flies temperament is flirted with, there’s only a singular divide between Zac and Christopher – with the other interchangeable characters choosing sides – that any true conflict between multiple personalities is thrown aside. Similarly, the violent and sexual content it alludes to is never committed to in a manner that gives it any context. Material that should terrify us leads us in fits of awkward laughter as Whitehead hams it up accordingly as an unhinged teen who audiences will no doubt be praying meets his maker when all is said and done.
A film with so much potential that sacrifices its macabre energy for soap opera-lite proceedings, Voyagers shoots for the stars but misses its mark entirely, destined to wade in the abyss of defeated opportunities.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Voyagers is screening in Australian theatres from April 8th, 2021