Sometimes a film wears its elevator pitch on its sleeve, and I didn’t have to read the Wikipedia page to know that Voyagers was sold as “Lord of the Flies in space.” The film, from Neil Burger (Divergent, Limitless, The Illusionist) stars Tye Sheridan from Mud, and Lily-Rose Depp from Johnny Depp’s loins, in a film about a group of genetically-engineered teens on a journey to colonize a distant planet. In the process of their journey, they encounter jealousy, cynicism, lust, and eventually discover that the real habitable planet was the friends they made along the way. The premise, it turns out, is actually better than the pitch, but the movie is so dead set on mimicking the conventions of YA fiction that it squanders its own potential. Voyagers could’ve been a lot more than a teen drama.
With the Earth getting hot and crowded, a team of scientists decides that humanity’s best bet is to create genetic combinations of their best citizens and send them on a journey to colonize a promising-looking planet. The journey will take 86 years, all but guaranteeing that these first-generation lab children will die before ever realizing their only “goal” in life. They exist solely to pass the mortal baton and eventually grandfather a team of future colonists. The future space teens are raised in isolation on Earth, sheltered from the natural world in order that they never come to miss it. Soon one of the scientists, played by Colin Farrell, volunteers to chaperone this suicide mission, little knowing how horny the space teens will eventually become. Farrell, his eyebrows bigger and more expressive than ever, his hair dyed a slightly unnatural shade, turned into Henry Rollins so gradually I didn’t even notice.
There’s a metaphor for life in there, obviously, having to find meaning in a journey even knowing you won’t be around to see its destination. And also for science, the idea of dutifully helping human knowledge advance incrementally, knowing it won’t be enough to save you or loved ones. It’s easy to wonder if it might be better to just drink yourself into a stupor and spend all your time pursuing sensual pleasures, leaving all the sowing and tilling for some other sucker. Who cares? It’s all ultimately meaningless anyway, right?
Personifying this latter view is the steely-eyed Zac, played by Fionn Whitehead. Only he comes to this realization not naturally, but because he, along with the ship’s babyface, Christopher, played by Tye Sheridan, stopped drinking the “blue drink,” which they discovered was spiked with a drug to keep them celibate and docile until procreation time. (Saltpeter, incidentally, has been a widespread military rumor going back generations). In one creepy scene, Zac applies his penetrating Charles Manson gaze to Sela, played by Lily-Rose Depp, staring her down while he emotionlessly gropes her right breast like he’s testing fruit at the supermarket.
The big question here is, why the saltpeter drink? Voyagers‘ stakes are the same with or without it. The bad drug plot feels like a hangover from Limitless, and the characters discovering their emotions is a leftover from Divergent, and both are largely unnecessary impositions on the movie at hand. Voyagers does this over and over, adding baggage from other stories rather than exploring its own premise (which, again, is actually pretty good). Christopher and Zac quickly get railroaded into their respective Ralph and Jack roles before we really get to know them, as if Burger can’t simply let this material be what it wants without trying to crowbar it into something else.
Sheridan is one of the best actors of his generation and Whitehead has perfected an effective if somewhat one-note “wild-eyed sociopath” look. While Hollywood nepotism has occasionally gifted us great onscreen talent (Carrie Fisher or the Gyllenhaal siblings come to mind), at this stage of her career, Lily-Rose Depp doesn’t seem to have quite figured out how to put her striking features to good use. Not that Burger’s scattershot screenplay is doing any of these actors any favors. Meanwhile, Burger’s most conspicuous trick as a director is a recurring montage effect, juxtaposing lightning bolts, sprouting plants, and extreme weather to convey the idea that the teens are becoming dangerously horny. It’s like the train-going-through-tunnel/space-shuttle-taking-off sequence from Naked Gun, delivered unironically. She cannae take any more, captain! The teens are about to blow!
Burger softpedals and PG-ifies his own obvious horniness so much and so often that it only serves to make him seem like a bit of a creep. Is it Zac who needs to go to horny jail or Burger?
Goofiness and occasional sub-par acting is forgivable in YA space fiction. Less acceptable is the consistent disrespect and disregard Voyagers shows toward its own characters and premise. If the eternal question is “what did you want this movie to be?” Voyagers’ consistent, unmistakable response is “sort of like other movies.”