Voyagers Takes Horny Teens on a Trip to Nowhere

We’ve all had this nightmare: the Earth is dying, so we’re forced to get on a spaceship full of teens on a one-way mission to a faraway planet. Such is the fate that befalls Richard (no relation), the saturnine scientist played by Colin Farrell in the new thriller Voyagers (in theaters April 9). Writer-director Neil Burger’s film concerns Richard’s plight, but it is mostly about the kids engineered to be the grandparents of the future colonists of humanity’s new home. They are of vital importance and yet will likely never see the fruits of their labor—a difficult pill for anyone to swallow, let alone a moody adolescent. 

Their moodiness was at least anticipated by the people who designed the mission. The kids have been unwittingly drugged as a preventative measure, their impulses dimmed, sex drives muted to nothing. It’s unclear when exactly the latter urges were meant to kick in, given that these cosmonauts are at some point supposed to get down to the business of making Adam and Eve 2.0’s parents. What is clear is that Burger is mulling over profound questions of humanity here, weighing the peace and reliability of this deadened population against the freedom and risk of full, conscious, passionate being.

Is Voyagers a metaphor for psychiatric medicine, especially as it is used among adolescents? Maybe. A political allegory for the organization of society and government? Sure. A fraught parable of consent, how it’s been taught and not at all taught to generations of our own young people? Could be. Burger’s premise comes laden with such thematic possibility. It presents a blank slate, a restart for the human experiment in which pretty much everything could be considered, either literalized or alluded to. 

And yet the film is mostly just a rehash of Lord of the Flies set in space. It turns down all the expected corridors and leaves most of its chilling implications unexplored. Accidentally or not, Voyagers also may make some arguments for gender essentialism, in its insistence that what happens in the film was probably inevitable. What a disappointment. 

For some reason—maybe it’s just the natural curiosity of youth—two boys on the ark develop a sudden suspicion of their surroundings. Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) decide to stop drinking the blue juice that’s administered to all the kids each day after discovering that it contains a drug that is suppressing their natural desires. Once off the stuff, Christopher and Zac’s ids start firing. Not just their libidos, but also their capacities for anger, conflict, and dominance. You know, boy stuff.

Or at least boy stuff in the limited purview of Burger’s film, which treats these developments as all too unavoidable. Because Christopher’s hair is lighter in color than Zac’s, we know Christopher will be the good one and Zac will be the bad one. And we know that their pretty crewmate, Sela (Lily-Rose Depp), will somehow come between them.

Despite those obvious contrivances, Voyagers still hums with potential, the hope that Burger will do something daring and bracing. That potential is shed in scene after scene as these blank-faced, monotone kids go to mild war against one another, but don’t learn anything beyond the simple fact that people can be bad and selfish and stupid sometimes. Which is, I suppose, a lesson worthy enough of repeating. But we’re talking about the dawn of civilization here! Voyagers could have gone on such a bigger trip.

As the film grew duller, I entertained myself with unanswerable questions. What happens when some of the kids turn out to be gay, as kids sometimes do? What exactly was the plan to get them to start reproducing? And if children can be genetically engineered in a laboratory—as these ones were—why even bother with this whole tortured setup? I realize that this might be the kind of pedantry best left to the cranks at Cinema Sins, but all of the what-ifs and how-comes hang heavy in the pressurized air of Voyagers. If nothing else, it would be interesting to watch Voyagers address those logical knots. Instead, it has no real regard for its own fascinating structure, figuring we just want the boys to fight so that something dumb and primal can be asserted.

The film occasionally brings to mind Claire Denis’s spacebound psychosexual drama High Life, in which a group of convicts are stuck on a spaceship and forced to contemplate matters of existence. It’s a wild, eerie, unsettling ride. I wish Voyagers had any of that film’s oddball, Euro verve, that it was interested in transgressing or prodding or engaging at all with the inherent danger of its conceit. Instead we get a boys-will-be-boys pissing contest in which all the old ways of patriarchy are reiterated instead of interrogated, or satirized, or shot straight out of the airlock. 

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