Neil Burger only directed the first installment of the ill-fated “Divergent” series before moving on to more lucrative problems (“Billions,” “The Upside”), but his latest film — a self-generated story that re-stages “Lord of the Flies” on a cramped spaceship full of horny teens — suggests an enduring fascination with the same kind of YA futurism that was all the rage back when Lionsgate was hoping to make Beatrice Prior into the next Katniss Everdeen. Between its dystopian overtures, antiseptic white sets, and diverse-ish cast of talented young actors forced to subsume their colorful screen personas into embryonic characters whose dialogue is limited to lines like “what does it feel like to feel something?,” “Voyagers” may chart an 86-year course across the galaxy but it certainly doesn’t take viewers anywhere they haven’t already been.
For better or worse, Burger knows it doesn’t have to. The middling but enjoyable “Voyagers” is meant to be a timeless parable about the primitive essence of human nature; if its space-age shenanigans are broadly identical to the beats of a book William Golding wrote about a group of preadolescent boys who crash on a deserted island during World War II, that’s more of a feature than it is a bug. It doesn’t excuse the script for being a universe wide and an inch deep, or let Burger off the hook for telling a story about chaos that follows the cleanest possible route to its predetermined destination, but it does make it easier to appreciate “Voyagers” for the bolder choices that it makes along the way.
Choices like assigning its young space cadets a chaperone played by Colin Farrell. The year is 2063, and — surprise, surprise — Earth isn’t doing so great. It turns out that denying the reality of climate change didn’t make the problem go away, and now humanity has to find a new rock to call home. The good news is that we’ve found one; the bad news is that it will take almost a full century for our scouting vessel to reach the distant planet and determine its viability. The solution: we’ll create a genetically engineered fleet of gifted children (the offspring of MIT scientists and Nobel laureates) whose sole purpose in life will be to repopulate aboard the Humanitas so that their grandkids will one day be alive to touch down in the new world.
“Voyagers” is never more engaging than when it confronts the underlying truth of this grim mission: We all inherited the same one. We’re all hurtling through space and wrestling with our directives as we chart a course towards a future we’ll never live to see, the only difference is that we have the luxury of being distracted from the task at hand.
Farrell plays Richard, a scientist and sad-eyed father figure whose job is to make sure that these star children keep their eyes on the prize. Implausibly (yet now undeniably) one of the best actors in the Milky Way, Farrell has been known to show off his soft underbelly when the mood strikes, but he’s never been quite as sweet or tender as he is here in the role of a man who volunteers to lead all 30 of his step-kids into the void. All parents ask themselves why they brought their children into this world; the pained wrinkle Richard wears on his face is that of someone who’s cursed to know the answer. Also maybe that of someone who’s cursed to single-handedly supervise 30 pre-adolescents at an intergalactic daycare until he dies.
Fortunately for Richard — and unfortunately for the dramatic intrigue of the film around him — everyone aboard the Humanitas is made docile by the blue space drink they take every day. They just don’t know that yet. The ultra-obedient kids mature into ultra-obedient young adults who are happy enough to live like lab rats, wear sexless blue uniforms, and keep their minds on the mission and off of each other… even though Burger’s photogenic cast seems less like the progeny of scientists and Nobel laureates and more like the progeny of hot actors and even hotter actors. Alas, shit goes sideways in a hurry once the blandly virtuous Christopher (Tye Sheridan, his face morphing into Sidney Crosby) and the blandly malevolent Zac (“Dunkirk” lead Fionn Whitehead, here given actual dialogue) discover what’s in the water and decide to rebel. Sorry for wanting to keep a bunch of hormonal teenagers from getting handsy and overpopulating the ship that’s entrusted with saving the human race, you guys.
You know what happens from there. One minute the boys are looking at the comely Sela (a stoic Lily-Rose Depp) as if they’ve never seen her before, and the next they’re screaming the deep space equivalent of “kill the pig!” as they hunt each other to death through the ship’s corridors. Burger assembles a smart and eclectic group of super promising young actors — the supporting cast includes “Blinded by the Light” breakout Viveik Kalra, “Game of Thrones” survivor Isaac Hempstead Wright, “Roxanne Roxanne” star Chanté Adams, and Disney Channel graduate Madison Hu — but none of them are given much to do beyond picking sides and providing a fragile sense of community.
Whitehead sharpens Zac into a dangerous shiv of unchecked id, but “Voyagers” is often rendered inert by the same tabula rasa tenor that inspired this project. For all of the patience and fatalistic grace that Burger mines from the initial half of the film, there’s something inherently dull about watching grown-ish people cycle through our most primitive emotions for the first time, and Burger veers off course by positioning the blunt forces of lust and rage as spectacles unto themselves rather than as means to an end. (At one point, the characters watch a montage of animalistic behavior that peaks with a clip from “The Cabin in the Woods.”)
The script is peppered with all of the expected lip-service about reason and compromise — about the tenuous balance between identity and groupthink in a moral vacuum where everyone dies at the end of the day — but “Voyagers” is far more interested in the first stirrings of feeling than it is exploring how civilization depends on taming our true nature. The predictability inherent to any honest “Lord of the Flies” riff becomes a problem in a movie that’s literally on auto-pilot, if only because “Voyagers” is as enamored by its discoveries as the characters are themselves, and races through their consequences with all the nuance of a story that needs to clean up the entire mess of human nature in the span of a single action sequence.
And yet any old story being retold by virtue of a new setting is going to live or die on the strength of that setting, and that’s where “Voyagers” delivers the goods. Production designer Scott Chambliss hasn’t taken a radical approach to the look of the Humanitas — it’s the kind of spaceship Jony Ive might create, all clean lines and smooth plastics — but the utopian vibe offers an effective counterpoint to the anarchy that soon floods the hallways. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak shoots the action with an inventive streak that plays up the “mouse in a maze” of it all, as his camera rig speeds along the ceiling in pursuit of characters who are suddenly realizing how little space they have to live. If only the rest of this destination-oriented thriller were as thoughtful about the journey required to get there.
Lionsgate will release “Voyagers” in theaters on Friday, April 9.
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