The characters in Voyagers are the middle children of an 86-year colonization mission — born on Earth but never really of it, and also unlikely to survive long enough to see the new planet they’re traveling toward. Their lives are slated to unfold almost entirely onboard the spaceship Humanitas, on which they’re both the crew and the future parents and grandparents of the eventual settlers. In an effort to make this regimented existence more tolerable, the planners behind the mission gestated their intergalactic travelers in a lab and raised them in a sealed facility so they wouldn’t get attached to family or to the dying Earth they’d soon leave behind. The crew is also drugged with a substance they call “blue” that dulls their senses, makes them more biddable, and dampens their sex drives, which becomes relevant as the kids grow up into a bunch of dewy-skinned teenagers living in close quarters with no clue that their state of chaste docility is chemically enforced. Then two of their number, Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead), figure it out and stop taking their daily doses, setting off a chain of events that throws the careful order of life onboard into chaos.
On one hand, the premise of Voyagers is a heady one, asking what gives a life meaning when its course is already set, and that same life has been surrendered in service of a future that won’t be experienced. On the other, it offers all sorts of potential for soapy sci-fi shenanigans when the 30 crew members, a diverse group united in looking like they could at any moment star in a Gap ad, go cold turkey and are all plunged into hyperadolescence at the same time. But the film, which was written and directed by Neil Burger (of The Illusionist, Limitless, and more recently, The Upside), walks a fine line between the philosophical and the frothy, managing with impressive precision to avoid being smart or fun. There is, at least, a short, giddy window in which Christopher and Zac find themselves awakening to emotional and physical sensation, racing down the hallways, zapping their fingers with electricity, and noticing the same nubile colleague, Sela (Lily-Rose Depp). But Zac acts on his newfound attraction by groping Sela against her will, and then challenges Richard Alling (Colin Farrell), the ship’s lone adult, about why he can’t just do whatever he pleases. “We’re just going to die in the end, so why can’t we do what we want? What’s the difference whether we’re good or not?”
There’s a sinking feeling accompanying the realization that, as Christopher and Zac start vying for leadership, Voyagers is becoming Lord of the Flies in space. It’s not just that divisions form in predictable and dramatically inert ways, the performances universally flat and unengaging as one side rebels against the group’s elected leader, giving into paranoia and opting for violence. It’s also that, as the film goes on, there’s a niggling sense that this futuristic retread of a familiar story is meant to say something about our moment — about, say, tribalism and strongman leadership. After a mysterious accident leads to the death of a crew member, Zac goes from “guy who just never thought about consent before” to full-on villain, leveraging fears that there’s an alien in the group’s midst to position himself as a protector and to label anyone who speaks up against him a possible carrier. His turn toward the manipulative and brutal is written as taking place so abruptly that it’s impossible to grasp him as a character or to understand how he’s able to take control so quickly. Rather than show the potential for both brutality and order in the human psyche, even in characters who’ve essentially started as blank slates, Voyagers ends up presenting Zac as an aberration leading the crew into a bout of hysterical overreaction. As allegories for the last few years go, it’s not one that offers much by way of compelling insight.
There have been a few noteworthy movies grappling with the idea of long-term space travel out in the past few years. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar pitted a father’s conflicted desires against the nightmarish stresses of time dilation, his children getting older and older every minute he’s away from Earth, decades slipping away. There was the dismal Passengers, the movie Voyagers most seems to want to echo, a movie about how the vastness of possible years in isolation makes the most inconceivable crimes forgivable. There was Claire Denis’s High Life, equal parts sexy and repulsive, with its coerced crew of criminals hurtling resentfully toward a black hole. But the best recent film to pit the human lifetime against the impossible hugeness of space is the Swedish Aniara from 2018, which is about a luxury liner that’s sent permanently off course on a routine trip taking passengers from Earth to Mars — a kind of serious take on a scenario shared by Armando Iannucci’s Avenue 5. As the years roll on in the film, the passengers embrace bursts of hedonism and develop new forms of spirituality and contend with all-consuming depression.
It’s a film that might come to mind when watching Voyagers, not just because it actually digs into the possibilities of its premise, but because it really engages with the idea of a life lived in transit without a destination, and with the idea of how different that really is from the lives we’re living now. Voyagers, in keeping its focus where it does, feels like a waste not just because of how predictable its beats are, but because it ends just when it feels like it’s getting interesting.