If you want to see basically every space-movie trope collected in one neat package, Neil Burger’s highly derivative Voyagers could be it. This outwardly beautiful but shallow film tries hard, but ultimately falls short.
The obvious starting point – as it often tends to be – is Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey. From there, Burger (who also wrote the script) smooshes in bits from Solaris, Aliens and Claire Denis’ recent High Life. But he overlays the space drama with teen drama, drawing on “kids gone wild” material like The Lord of the Flies. While this plays into Burger’s experience in the dystopian teen drama Divergent, the result here is muddled. That’s a shame because the film tries to ask some big questions, even if it doesn’t have the answers.
The film opens in the late-21st Century. With the Earth dying thanks to climate change, humanity has discovered a “nearby” habitable world. Although this planet is close in astronomical terms, it’s still going to take 86 years to get there. The mission controllers decide on a radical plan to use genetically engineered people to undertake the mission. They’re raised from infancy in an isolated environment simulating space conditions, under the tutelage of Richard (Colin Farrell). Although he’s meant to remain on Earth, Richard decides to go on the mission himself. This will both accelerate the start of the mission and allow him to mentor his charges.
Several years into the mission, the kids who took off are now teens. Best friends Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) notice a toxin in the nutrient system for the ship’s food supply. After some investigation, they trace it to “the blue”, a drink served to all the crew members at every meal. The toxin is in fact a drug meant to suppress emotions and keep the teens in a docile state. But no one – including Richard – has mentioned this to them or sought their permission to drug them continuously. Zac and Christopher secretly stop taking “the blue”. Just as these tensions start simmering, the communications system malfunctions. Richard asks Zac to help him fix it in a space walk; but the now-surly Zac refuses. Christopher joins Richard in the space walk. But a mysterious event ends in Richard’s death. Now, adrift in deep space, the teenage crew are all alone.
Voyagers toys with some of the most enduring archetypes of “space operas” without ever breaking out of them. The fact that sci-fi fans will pretty much be able to guess every twist in the tale renders it quite inert as entertainment. And when Burger swung into full-on conflict among the crew members, it felt stale to me. He hasn’t aided his own cause with the script, which inserts some risible dialogue and unintentionally funny moments. It then descends into a routine chase sequence in the final act.
The mostly young cast struggle with the material. Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One) is at least credible as Christopher, but Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) is poorly served by a script that reduces his Zac to a caricature in the second half. Lily-Rose Depp (The King) is similarly sidelined in an unforgiving role as Sela, the mission’s chief medical officer. In fact, only Colin Farrell (The Gentlemen) gets the chance to build any kind of sympathy as Richard.
Voyagers treads familiar territory. Burger clearly wanted it to strive for something more profound, but its continual resorting to convention undermines its ambition. While the film looks great (Enrique Chediak is the DOP), its emotional resonance barely registers. So although it shoots for the stars, it ends up a film with feet of clay.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television