I’ve been familiar with director Neil Burger’s work for some time. His most well-known film “Limitless” is one of my favorites while “The Illusionist” earned a few Oscar nods and it most remembered as one of two magician movies released in 2006. He also directed “The Upside” which was a surprise comedy hit in 2017. However, Burger has also dabbled in teen dramas specifically the failed “Divergent” franchise where he directed the first film and produced the other two that were actually released. For his latest film Burger returns to the dystopian teen drama genre with “Voyagers”, a movie that I and many others are basically calling “Lord of the Flies” in space. “Voyagers” is clearly inspired by the novel, even if indirectly, focusing on a mission to a new world and the first generation of voyagers aboard a ship with only one adult, Colin Farrell’s Richard, on board to lead them into the future. When two young men, Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) decide to stop taking a special concoction that dulls their sex drive and personalities, others, including their joint love interest Sela (Lily-Rose Depp), join them leading to anarchy and an all-out war for control over the ship with the potential threat of a outside force adding to the drama. On paper this sounds like an awesome story and idea capable of tackling many modern and universally relevant topics. Sadly, the final result is an oversimplified mess that only barely reaches for the stars.
“Voyagers” does play out like a young adult novel adaptation, so much so that it would be easy to assume this was based on an actual book. Alas “Lord of the Flies” seems to be the closest form of literature this film took inspiration from. The idea of a generation of young teenagers specifically bred to exist in space knowing that they won’t live to see the new world, but their grandchildren will is actually a neat concept and one that challenges the ethics of science to a degree. There are actually a lot of elements of this film that could have been genuinely insightful. Early in the movie these teenagers are taking a blue substance that keeps their hormones and personalities in check to make sure order remains on the ship. Once that’s taken out of the picture by some rebellious members of this confined society the teenagers find the joy of interpersonal touch and their sex drives while the hunger for power also begins to corrupt splitting the group in factions. There’s also the possibility of an alien being outside the ship which creates fear among the teenagers and allows them to be manipulated based on whether they believe that threat is true or not. There’s so much that could have been done with these ideas, especially adapted to a futuristic setting, and yet the experience feels hollow and generic, willing to acknowledge numerous challenging ideas but unable, or maybe unwilling, to properly explore them.
After the watching the film I actually wrote down a few ideas I felt would have made the movie so much better. For one, not once do we see a same sex couple on board the ship. Setting aside any debate of whether or not this would be pandering or required, it would be an intriguing way to explore the real-world issues of homophobia and acceptance of same sex relationships if we saw these previously drugged kids start exploring their sexual desires beyond the basic man-woman relationship, especially as their more aggressive and selfish natures start to take hold. There are moments where women are targeted by the men as sex objects which could have easily been adapted into a female empowerment message or challenged the ethics of the male domination of women but instead is lumped in with the overall “us vs them” mentality that forms as factions begin to split off. One of the most obvious themes of the movie is the true evil within us all, how a perfect genetic makeup does not hide a dark personality or tendencies. As the teenagers ditch the blue serum several characters show their true colors as manipulative, controlling, and downright evil but instead of answering the larger question of whether or not humanity deserves to have a second chance or if people are just inherently selfish and bad, once again the message is oversimplified to serve a more palatable young adult plot. What’s most frustrating is that “Voyagers” does acknowledge many of the deeper ideas that SHOULD have been incorporated into the movie but chooses to go in a direction more focused on anarchy and teen angst than offer something more unsettling and honest which would have been nice for its clearly teenager target audience to experience. If there’s one idea that I think the movie does effectively touch on it’s the ideas of social and emotional manipulation through misinformation and disinformation, but even that I felt could have been explored on a much deeper level.
And it’s too bad because there’s plenty in this movie that does work but these small elements don’t make up for the lack of sincerity and care put into the larger ideas at hand. Neil Burger brings his trademark visual flair to the film including revisiting his fractal zoom camera trick in the film’s finale. The set pieces and the fact that things take place in space basically make the ship an island and space the ocean trapping these teenagers in a world they have to create and maintain which makes the inescapability of the chaos that much more effective. I’ll also admit that the tension in the second hour had me on the edge of my seat as things started to ramp up, so it’s worth noting that even though there’s a lot wrong with this movie I did have fun watching it on a surface level wondering how the heroes would get out of increasingly frustrating situations all too relevant to our current world where misinformation and social manipulation has become commonplace. “Voyagers” also serves as a great showcase of some talented young up-and-comers including Tye Sheridan (who continues to carve out a niche in teen-centered sci-fi) and Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Johnny Depp in her biggest mainstream role to date. However a talented case and fun set pieces and camera tricks can’t overpower what is, in the end, a sadly underwhelming and watered-down teen drama.
I was genuinely frustrated while watching “Voyagers” because I feel like there was a lot of potential and, in many respects, I do wish this was a larger novel because I feel like a book would have taken the time to examine the many relevant themes within this narrative in the detail that they really deserve. Despite populating the ship with fine young talent and incorporating his trademark visual flair, Neil Burger, who also wrote the movie, fails to get to the heart of any of the challenging ideas that clearly inspired this movie or even take full advantage of the “Lord of the Flies” in space concept. Instead of focusing on the sex and the cliché teenage conflicts it would have been much more enjoyable to see the Burger challenge his characters and viewers with more in-depth analyses of things like gender roles, the human condition or, hell, even teenage angst in a more fully realized package. There are small glimmers of these theme, but most of them serve to drive the plot and conflict forward which adds up to nothing more than a battle of tribes for control of the ship. While I did have fun watching the movie, because one thing Burger does very right here is create effective tension based on real-world manipulation tactics, “Voyagers” felt like a missed opportunity only scratching the surface of its own potential. It all adds up to a rather generic dystopian teen drama that could have and should have been so much more.