Voyagers Movie Review: An ingenious idea that fails to take off due to average execution
An interesting premise is let down by average storytelling, acting, and direction
Voyagers ranks high on the conception/ideation scale. If the execution were half as good as the premise, it may well have been a science fiction classic like Blade Runner 2049. The subpar handling of its fundamental questions pertaining to existence and meaning makes this space-inspired odyssey a terribly shaky ride.
It is 2063. To ensure the continuation of the human species, scientists have discovered a planet on which life can thrive. The catch is that it takes 86 years to get there. A group of children, birthed by artificial insemination and brought up in a lab environment that simulates space travel, is groomed to make that voyage. The hope is that they grow into functional adults onboard, procreate, and see their grandchildren set forth on the new planet. Not socialised in the way human children are, the group is constantly conditioned to accept that its primary purpose is to ensure the continuation of the human race. The conflict arises when they discover that their acceptance of the situation exists in the absence of free will.
Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead, Colin Farrell, Chanté Adams
Voyagers throws up more than its fair share of questions worth pondering. What if you realised as a young adult that you’ve been fed lies about the purpose of your existence all along? What if you could see through the manipulation, and understand that you have more control over your choices than you had originally imagined? What if freedom could be reclaimed from those who have kept it from you in the garb of protection? What if you were allowed to experience the full range of human emotions by refusing your daily dose of mind-altering drugs? If a person is burdened by such knowledge all at once, it’s safe to assume that things would get overwhelming. And this is exactly what the crew aboard the spacecraft (a decade into its 86-year journey) goes through. All-consuming feelings of lust, control, rebelliousness, confusion and predation abound. Since the what or why has never been explained properly, it is only natural that they struggle with the how. How are they to cope now, for example?
At the centre of this unfortunate turn of events is middle-aged mentor/counsellor/guide Richard (Colin Farrell), who has requested special permission to accompany the group. He has this innate need to be a father figure. The children are his responsibility. But that was then. Now, they’re grown men and women, who have the right to ask uncomfortable questions and demand the truth. Zac (Fionn Whitehead) asks him pointedly, “Why are you allowed to touch Sela, and not me?” Richard has no answer, so he stares back intensely.
Richard plays the only supervisory role aboard the spaceship, which in itself, is a major loophole in the narrative. And to think that they originally intended to send the kids (10 or 11-year-olds, at best) on a never-ending mission, by themselves. What did they expect the children to do? Just wing it, I suppose. It’s only a small matter of future human survival that’s at stake. We get that they are raised under laboratory conditions and all that, but they still don’t cease to be kids, do they? One must believe that real-life scientific minds have more to offer than the people floating around in Neil Burger’s imagination.
The cliques and tropes that form through the story (once the big reveal has presented itself early on) fall into predictable terrain. Characters get neatly slotted into boxes: these caricatures include the reluctant and burdened leader, the bad boy attracted to power, control and disruption (he looks and acts like a creep from the beginning, at that), and a woman who neither leads nor follows. The remaining members gravitate to two opposing factions – those for order and those against it. Even if one were to, for argument’s sake, take these stereotypes at face value, the film needed a superior cast to pull off what it was attempting. The scenes transition from one overacted action sequence to another, with unconvincing dialogue playing filler in between.
While the narrative does explore human nature’s need to resort to baser impulses and instincts when confronted with an irreversible fact, Voyagers could have taken an alternate route by posing existential questions of meaning, purpose and being, to provide nuance and depth. Visually, there is enough in it to be spellbound by the sheer spectacle that is space. Even the claustrophobia — escaping demons (real and internal) in a small area — is captured well thanks to some great cinematography.
On the whole, more ought to have come of Voyagers. It will remain a project that promised with its premise, but failed to take it forward in the realm of execution.