'Voyagers' is imperfect, but it’s interesting and nuanced.
- 🚀Excellent production design that shifts meaning as the story's tone changes.
- 🚀Strong themes of humanism and humanity's capacity for good in spite of dark impulses.
- 🚀Yes, it's derivative of 'Lord of the Flies', so you aren't getting a wholly original story.
- 🚀The emotionally muted first act can feel a little tedious.
- 🚀The film doesn't know how to treat women as more than stock archetypes.
Voyagers is currently only available to watch in theaters (as of March 19, 2021). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend checking it out at your local drive-in. If one isn’t available, please be sure to check out state and CDC guidelines before watching in an enclosed space.
The term “derivative” is often thrown out in a strictly pejorative sense, as if every narrative concept or thematic exploration needs to be entirely original or spawn uninfluenced from the mind of a creator. However, Voyagers is an example of how the term can be accurate without necessarily being an automatic knock to its character. It’s about as obvious a riff on Lord of the Flies as can be, but writer-director Neil Burger capitalizes upon his science fiction setting and a lean into slow-burning escalation to make the story his own, merging classic themes with speculative optimism.
By the year 2063, humanity has come to realize that they are not long for this Earth, and colonization of another habitable planet is going to be the only way the species will survive. With the closest Earth-like planet requiring an 84-year mission, world leaders opt to create children from intelligent sperm and egg donors and raise them in confined isolation, emulating the conditions of a cramped spacecraft and training them for a mission that will consume their lifetimes and allow their children and grandchildren to complete it in their stead. The children are launched into space at the age of eight, with only their volunteer guardian Richard (Colin Farrell) present to guide them into adulthood.
The situation starts to devolve ten years later when Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) discover a compound in their daily supplements that has suppressed the crew’s emotions and their teenage sexual desire. In deciding to stop taking the suppressant, Christopher and Zac become enamored with the new emotions flooding their system – a plot point that comes uncomfortably close to the assertion that teenage boys are incapable of controlling their hormonal actions – and a wave of suspicion for the mission’s best intentions starts to permeate the crew. Only Richard’s protégé Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) holds unwaveringly to the path Richard set them on, even as the ship descends into chaos and the crew starts to take out their frustrations on one another.
The set-up is so premised upon the question of whether humanity is worth saving from itself that it makes the film’s eventual plunge into predictability forgivable, perhaps even earned, as it takes the familiar explorations of Lord of the Flies’ dark impulses and extrapolates them into a fight for the survival of humanity’s last vestiges. It’s a slow escalation, a ratcheting tension that becomes more severe as the teenagers gain access to their more primal humanity, and the more the film leans into deriving from William Golding’s novel, the tenser this otherwise banal-seeming, overly muted thought experiment becomes. The cramped, sterile corridors of the ship become an inescapable labyrinth, a chilling reminder that we have no choice but to share space with our ideological rivals, even as they actively wish us harm. This resolves in a climax that is thrilling in spite of its obviousness, providing hope for humanity’s future that spans beyond the bad actions of those in the present.
That said, Voyagers falters pretty hard in bringing an element into Lord of the Flies’ framework that was not previously present: women. This isn’t to say that Neil Burger’s female characters are incapable of dehumanizing violence with the worst of the boys. The cast of vaguely identifiable supporting women has equal dimensions as the male stock characters that populate the divided teenage crew. The problem comes down to the women not actually having much character to speak of, whereas Christopher and Zac form the basis of an antagonistic relationship along lines of ideology and power. This leaves Sela with little to do as a female lead, serving primarily as a symbol of goodness through her relationship with father figure Richard that signals to the audience which characters we meant to root for. At best, she’s a living prop to give Christopher someone to talk to as the crew turns against him, but at worst she’s a prize to be won, a cipher worth fighting over but not worth exploring her own suppressed humanity.
This unfortunately places a pretty big asterisk on any recommendation of a film that purports to explore the future of humanity’s entirety, though it’s a qualification that persists throughout popular culture and is by no means unique to this film. Voyagers is imperfect, but it’s interesting and nuanced, with skilled direction to prop up the weaknesses in the writing and a solid enough inspirational foundation to carry the themes and characters to a satisfying end. Sometimes it’s not worth getting bogged down in where the roots of the story come from, when you can embrace what has grown from those roots as its own entity.
Voyagers opens in theaters on April 9, 2021.
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