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Review: 'Voyagers,' Weighted Down with Allegory, Doesn't Achieve Escape Velocity

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jun 8, 2021
'Voyagers'  (Source:Lionsgate)

They feel manipulated, and they're pissed. They feel lied to, and they're distrustful. They feel controlled, and they stop buying into soothing placebos. Some among them recognize the imperfections of the situation but counsel against shirking critical responsibilities, seeking to maintain a civil, reasonable discourse. But then a populist leader rises who claims that he, and only he, can protect his frightened followers from an unimaginable threat.

If this sounds to you like America since 2016, well, you're not wrong. Writer-director Neil Burger ("The Illusionist," "Divergent") aims for the stars with his new feature, "Voyagers," but his tormented social allegory weighs the project down.

The film's basic plot follows a now-familiar sci-fi course: In 2063, scientists locate a suitable exoplanet and make plans to dispatch a colony ship. Since the one-way journey will take 83 years, they figure the easiest and most effective thing to do is to selectively breed a crew of colonists (about two dozen in all), put them on a generation ship while they are still in their teens, and send them off to procreate along the way. Most likely, the first generation will not live to see the promised land. These kids will have to achieve a level of selflessness, learning to be content with the knowledge that they and their offspring will spend their lives hewing to duty, all in hopes that their grandchildren will inherit a fresh new Earth.

Project scientist Richard (Colin Farrell) is in charge of educating the kids. As he watches over them throughout their childhoods, he comes to worry that they will need a responsible adult to stay on track with the mission. In this, he's tragically correct: As soon as alpha-male best friends Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) realize that the blue fluid the kids drink with breakfast each morning is designed to suppress their libidos and short-circuit their ability to feel pleasure, they stop drinking their rations and start feeling... well, every sort of burn.

While Christopher manages to integrate these crazy new sensations into his daily life and keep functioning as a productive member of the crew, Zac starts down a darker path, refusing to do his work, getting into fights, and acting out in sexually inappropriate ways with Sela (Lily-Rose Depp), a smart, confident young woman who, even when she, too, stops drinking the blue, remains collected and in control of her impulses.

The trailer for "Voyagers" makes the film look like "Club Kids in Space." The reality is a bit more vintage than that: It's more along the lines of "Interstellar Lord of the Flies," complete with a presumed monster loose on the ship that Zac — who loses no time in proclaiming himself the new "Chief Officer" and deputizing his followers to do the lethal dirty work of eliminating his foes — uses to terrify those he's managed to cow. Christopher, Sela, and a few others are reduced to the status of a desperate de factor resistance, stunned by the swiftness and violence of Zac's rise and not quite able to grasp (as rational people so often are not) the primal brutishness that Zac exhibits and provokes in others. "Maybe," Christopher muses at one point when all seems lost, "this is our true nature."

That line gives away the movie's wittiest joke — that the "alien" Zac's followers fear is nothing other than their own humanity. There's also a sideways dig at the liberal wish to simply ignore humanity's baser traits and expect them to disappear (a strategy no different, at its root, than the conservative wish to ignore the essential causes of social ills like poverty and inequality, expecting that such issues can be eradicated with either enough prayer, enough jails, or both).

All science fiction, as they say, is about today, even if it's set in the future. But not all science fiction rises to the level of, say, "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Blade Runner," or "GATTACA," or even slightly more ham-handed (though still popular) films like "The Planet of the Apes" or "Soylent Green." Often, the difference lies in finding the right allegory, as well as the right way to tell the story that's being fashioned from that allegory; in this case, we couldn't be more constantly reminded of the film's basic, bluntly-delivered message if Burger were simply to distribute MAGA hats to half his cast. The message, such as it is, is poured over us rather than allowed to seep in.

The film suffers from an abundance of weary sci-fi tropes, best summarized by how the camera zooms down long, all-white corridors. Just about everything on the ship is done up in white, from the instrument panels to the trays in the mess halls. The movie is visually boring (although exterior shots that depict the massive ship moving through interstellar space are gratifyingly dark, with the Milky Way sparkling in bright majesty: These shots do pull the move out of its stylistic rut and lend it some atmosphere).

There are things to like about the film, though not much that seems apt to stand the test of time. Fionn Whitehead's broad, grinning villainy is nothing short of campy; Tye Sheridan's sincere but naive, good guy persona is, meantime, campy in another way; less mustache-twirling panache than Cream of Wheat wholesomeness. The crew is refreshingly multi-ethnic, even if they tend to break down into familiar social strata: Strutting jocks, nerdy girls, the popular and the scorned. For a massive experiment in homeschooling, these kids certainly replicate high school all too accurately and take it to chilling extremes.

That is the point, though: Today's bloodthirsty, tribal politics resemble something juveniles, left unsupervised, would come up with. But that's also the film's biggest stumbling block because as hard as Burger tries to instill a sense of hope, he's far more effective at modeling - and mocking - the childish, unsustainable caricature that our real-world culture, political and otherwise, has become. We need a little more rocket fuel than "Voyagers" gives us to achieve escapism velocity and believe a better future can be salvaged on this world, or any other.

"Voyagers" is available digitally today

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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