Writer-director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist,” “Divergent”) serves up a great big “Lord of the Flies in Space” sci-fi allegory in “Voyagers,” a bleak thriller about human nature’s toxic side, unleashed on a long space voyage.
It’s not terrible, but it’s not nearly as hopeful as he might have intended. As our young crew of colonists give in to their violent urges and all the dark tendencies hard-wired into humanity, it’s hard not to see this parable too clearly to let yourself enjoy it.
If the past few years have taught us nothing, it’s a creeping despair that the human race ever could get its act together to fend off climate catastrophe and organize, finance and commit to sending a “select” crew to start life on another world. Voting for sociopaths, violently resisting the common good, giving in to every whim and shortsighted impulse, there’s nothing Burger shows us here that really provides “escape.”
How’s that not Life Under Covid with the unmasked, the anti-vaxxers and the anti-democracy traitors among us?
A few decades into the future, Earth has begun its death spiral. Whatever scrambling the planet does to stave that off is immaterial. An Elon Musk mindset has taken hold. We must send humans to a suitable substitute planet to ensure that the species survives, even if Earth doesn’t.
It’s an 86 year journey away, meaning three generations will live and serve on a ship traveling there, reproducing through artificial insemination, noses-to-the-maintenance/food-growing grindstone from life to death. To make this work, that first gen has been raised without any contact with life on Earth, genetically selected and incubated for their tasks.
They’re packed off as tweens, with mission planner Richard (Colin Farrell) along because “someone should be there to raise them.” But “10 years later” the smartest among them Chris (Tye Sheridan) has figured out something’s amiss. And his friend Zac (Fionn Whitehead) is just hotheaded enough to suggest they act on it.
They’re being drugged. It’s “in the program.” Individuality, aggression, joy and sexuality have been tamped down. A quiet, efficient and sterile ship life for the crew of 30 is the result.
It’s “the only way to deal with living like this,” Richard counsels. But “We didn’t ask to be here” is the first indication that they’re eschewing “the blue” drug and carrying on as their true selves.
Zac aggressively comes on to the medical officer Sela (Lily Rose Depp), wrestling and goofing off spreads and then the inevitable communications breakdown hits, requiring a spacewalk.
Insulating these folks from Earth life means nobody’s seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” or any of the other films to use that emergency as the inciting incident.
The ship is also making creepy noises — thumps and gurgles. Has something latched onto the spacecraft?
Our Humanity in a Microcosm experiment blows up in all the usual ways — hormones, aggression, bullying, anti-social revolt and fatalism blow up in a post-puberty rush. They blow past “high school cliques” and go straight into murderous nihilism.
Chris, Sela, Phoebe (Chanté Adams) and a couple of others can’t reason with an increasingly unhinged Zac and those who would follow their Dear Leader right off a cliff with smiles on their gullible faces.
The performances, actors playing stock characters, are passable if not terribly compelling. The production design is first rate. But we see every single story beat coming at us like a comet we’ve been expecting for years.
Burger may be saying something important and pertinent to life today in “Voyagers,” but he’s saying it in such obvious ways that there’s little pleasure in this seriously derivative thriller. We know what’s coming, and knowing that, the viewer becomes a nihilist right along with Make Our Spaceship Great Again lemmings.
And what’s the nihilist’s motto? “There’s no point, nothing we can do about anything, so why bother?”
MPA Rating: PG-13 for violence, some strong sexuality, bloody images, a sexual assault and brief strong language
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Lily Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead, Chanté Adams, Madison Hu, Archie Madekwe and Colin Farrell.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Neil Burger. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:48