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The lord of the flies in space

Tye Sheridan and Fionn Whitehead in Voyagers

Tye Sheridan and Fionn Whitehead in Voyagers
Photo: Lionsgate

Note: The author of this review has seen Voyagers on a digital screener from home. Before you decide to watch it – or another movie – in a movie theater, consider the health risks involved. Here is an interview on the matter with scientific experts.

If Nothing Else, Hollywood’s latest rumodyssey, Voyagers, devises a new solution to intergalactic travel, the old equation of distance versus time. The film is set in 2063, as eggheads on an increasingly uninhabitable land have begun planning a new start beyond the stars. They have found a planet that can sustain human life. The problem is, it takes 86 years to get there. How will anyone survive long enough to establish humanity’s new home? In the sci-fi of yesteryear, the greatest fictional minds at fictional NASA looked at cryogenic sleep, wormholes, and accelerated velocity to cross the vast expanse of the cosmos without curving along the way. IN Voyagers, the strategy is much more long-term: The crew consists of children who grow up on board the ship and then have their own children, who in turn will grow up to birth and raise Grandchildren resettling the species. Instead of leaving the world a better place for future generations, they are leaving the world to a better place to be inherited and colonized by their descendants.

Most of Voyagers is set 10 years after launch. The crew, born and bred by anonymous donors for the sole purpose of completing the mission, has grown from test tube babies to spooky remote control devices – they are like a private school underwater with protected Amish youth. Monitoring their one-way voyage is the ship’s captain and leader of the project, Richard (Colin Farrell), who resides in the unpleasant role of versatile authority figure: he is a father, boss, teacher, therapist. To keep everyone at work and out of trouble, teens are administered glasses with something called The Blue – a liquid that, like the obligatory medication for Lois Lowry’s dystopian middle school booklet The donor, suppresses the more intense emotions and natural desires of growing boys and girls. But what will happen when humanity’s last, young hope stops taking the chemical equivalent of a cold shower?

Anyone weaned off a steady diet of stories about life in a can that flows through the unknown can probably foresee the path – the psychological, technological and potentially extraterrestrial obstacles that these interstellar children in home school face. Why mention any precedents? In that way lies space madness. Better to scan Voyagers for allegorical significance there is no lack of that in the tribe discord which erupts from its ominous silence. As these YA astronauts come into contact with their basic instincts – a journey that begins with some exploratory groping before moving on to the teenage spirit authority, Kurt Cobain, who once called territorial pissing – the film suggests a classic classroom rebellion story sucked into a sci-fi-rum. Is the children’s primary focal point a metaphor for a sudden flushing of pubescent hormones and perhaps the general disillusionment that sometimes accompanies them? Another way among many to read the film is as a drama about a generation that opposes another’s expectations – about Zoomers (in spirit if not era), pushing back towards the environmental and professional obligations created by their elders betrayal.

The problem with Voyagers is that its power is quite allegorical. The more the film begins to look like a deep space Lord of the Flies—Complete with fabulous animals, outcast piggy and urgent hunts over the futuristic version of a remote island – the more predictable it becomes. Neil Burger, director at the helm of this fast-moving vessel, gives the conventions a seductive sheen of utilitarian probability: He has created a zero-G thriller that is at once beautiful in its cosmic and cosmetic design and claustrophobic credible in how unglamorous it makes space travel appear. What he has not done is tap the audience into the sensory awakening that drives the plot. Burger tries to express this experience through feverish montage flashes of decomposed water, leaping animals, blooming flowers and expanding pupils. This is basically the way he visualized balloon intellect Unlimited– “expand the mind” as a music video supercut of stock B-roll retrieved from a database.

Perhaps the film’s escalating conflict would be more exciting if the characters themselves (played by people like Tye Sheridan and Lily-Rose Depp, among an ensemble of twenty other models) were not so bright-eyed. To be fair by design: We follow a group of literally born saviors living lives devoted only to great duty and scientific protocol. Of course they would be awkwardly socialized robot teens with no personalities. But the film’s climax, their war between rational responsibility and hedonistic rejection of it, never wins more than an abstract pulse because the young Americans who take sides in the struggle are so interchangeable. (Only Dunkirk‘s Fionn Whitehead, as a villain’s power template, makes a great impression.) Voyagers is smooth and redirects enough and even occasionally artistic in its vision of a future placed in the hands of children struggling with the burden of their importance to it. But it is also a story about the struggle for humanity that makes humanity itself theoretical, just like the scientists in the film who dreamed of their misguided experiment in galactic manifest fate.

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