9/10 Voyagers is a spectacular exercise in film editing and set design, a wonderful tribute to the rage of puberty and a slightly overcommitted tribute to William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies, which ends up being its main downfall.
Aboard the Humanitas, late 21st century- The Humanitas hurtles through space on an 86-year multigenerational mission to colonize the first habitable planet humanity has discovered. Its crew, who appear to be in their early 20s, have been genetically engineered specifically for the voyage and raised in isolation so they will not miss home during a journey only their grandchildren were meant to see the end of. The only crewmate who was not bred for the mission is Richard Alling (Colin Farrell), who raised the children and joined the mission to help them see it through, knowing he would die onboard.
Chris and Zac (Tye Sheridan and Fionn Whitehead) discover that the blue medication they are given every day is a drug meant to kill their sex drive and dampen their pleasure response, and they stop taking it. The two and their followers go through what is essentially a compound puberty, gaining an early-20s sex drive in a flash, but also exploring non-sexual ways to stimulate themselves for the first time. Chaos reigns onboard.
Voyagers is a delicious, lusty tour of all the mundane joys of being alive. Once the characters start having pleasure responses, they start seeking new ways to stimulate them. There’s sex, yes, but there’s so, so much more. It’s the feeling of human skin against your own, the rush of fighting, and of winning, the onboard movies they’d never paid attention to before, the difference between eating and really tasting their food, the simple act of running as fast as they can, feeling the air press harder and harder against their sweating skin, feeling their entire body writhe as their hearts rise to the challenge.
Voyagers positions pleasure and pleasure-seeking as the height of human achievement and ambition, and even as things spiral further and further out of control, it makes a case that’s hard to argue against. The film is held up and made delightful by its imaginative, hair-trigger editing. The mood of the film is eager to rise with its characters, using montage, music and lighting to put viewers into not just the post-adolescents’ perspectives, but their excitement and delight. Every time they find a new way to set themselves off, the screen explodes with flashes of human history, of oceans and architecture, every passion that’s ever been inspired. Even having been denied sunlight and any Earthbound pleasures from their sterile, sexless “births,” they yearn to feel and experience and explore. They yearn to leave the Humanitas, even if only for the endless dark that surrounds them.
Alling is a very literal god/allfather figure, and there’s a lot of humanity baked into his role as well. There’s this fear of what’s out there that becomes a major plot point even as they drift through a void, one that predates and seems to outlast their voyage. As children who have never been allowed to leave their sanitary environment, they ask Alling to protect them from monsters they can’t have ever been encouraged to think exist. When asked why he wants to take a one-way trip that he knows he won’t complete, Alling says he wants to protect them from what’s out there, despite knowing as well as anyone how little is out there.
Alling acts as an onboard therapist for the teenagers, one of many naked acknowledgements of the horror of how they were created and what’s been done to them. Alling consoles them by repeating what great explorers their grandchildren will be, and solidifies the hypocrisy with his own family narrative, saying that his own grandparents were good, honest people, ignoring the fact that they were probably scoundrels in their late teens and early 20s. He believes, or purports to believe, so strongly in this notion of his own grandparents as glossed-over characters in history books that he’s participated in the genetic engineering, caging and execution of these people who were meant from their plastic wombs to exist in history books and nowhere else.
This is some stout stuff from writer/director/producer Neil Burger, directing his first screenplay in more than a decade. These days, he’s known mostly for directing Divergent, a lackluster 2014 effort from Lionsgate to corner the Hunger Games market – which is actually just the Harry Potter market a few years removed – that they’d discovered two years earlier.
Voyagers is the Lionsgate’s second pandemic-delayed attempt to recapture that audience in recent weeks, the first being Chaos Walking. Both that excellent film and Voyagers have been dismissed by critics, and more importantly seem to have been dismissed by Lionsgate – both dumped with very little marketing in the early-2021 wasteland when the teenagers they were made for, the ones that would still have been hanging out at the movies at this period in history anyway, certainly aren’t going back yet, opening at no. 3 and no. 5 at the box office, respectively.
It’s sad to see these wonderful movies, which have a better-developed understanding of teenage angst than many of their peers without having to frame it inside a totalitarian state, dumped and dumped on the way they’re being, but it is nice to see Lionsgate apparently shifting away from trying to use YA properties to compete with comic book monopolies. Studios trying to compete with the murderer’s row of intellectual properties Disney collected over the ’10s is bad for their bottom line, and it’s bad for moviemaking as an art form. A massive vacuum has developed in the mid-budget range, and it sort of exploded onto the VOD market while theaters were closed in 2020. With Disney and the studios still committed to really competing with it moving to streaming, to distributor’s great chagrin, mid-level films could come back in a big way.
As much as I love Voyagers, there’s plenty to dislike about it. Burger pitched this as Lord of the Flies in space, and its extreme interest in directly adapting that book prevents it from fully flowering into its own movie and coming to its own conclusions. Lord of the Flies is a story about prepubescent English boys trapped on a deserted island in the middle of World War III. Voyagers is a story about highly educated, genetically engineered co-eds on a state-of-the-art spaceship with everything they need to survive and thrive, to the extent that they were meant to thrive, available at their fingertips and no external cause for conflict. Burger can intend whatever he wants, but Voyagers is not Lord of the Flies, and it hurts itself by trying to be, becoming a scene-for-scene adaptation for probably the majority of its 108-minute runtime.
Spoilers for a scene-for-scene adaptation of an extremely famous 65-year-old book below.
Chris and Zac directly play out the melodrama between Ralph and Jack, Lord of the Flies’ main characters, but Ralph and Jack are strangers who meet on the island for the first time and instantly distrust each other. Chris and Zac begin the story as best friends who have been raised together, who start this whole gory story together when they decide to stop taking the suppressants. When Ralph and Jack end their story in the same place, it’s a statement that human entropy toward war and chaos drags both the most optimistic and cynical characters to the same endpoint. When Chris and Zac do not end their story in the same place, it feels like a copout, a retcon to separate the good character from the bad character and allow the breeding pair to move forward despite the fact that there is much, much less difference between Chris and Zac than between Ralph and Jack.
When Ralph and Jack emerge as leaders and push most of the other boys to the background, it makes sense that the most fully formed personalities dominate in a clan of 8-year-old strangers. When Chris and Zac emerge as leaders and start treating their peers, with whom they have also been raised and who are presumably just as mature and capable as they are, as pawns to be pushed in a political game they have no context or reason to play, it doesn’t make any sense at all. This also feels like a major copout – identifiable personalities tend to emerge out of groups as large as 100 in the space of a single semester, but this group of 30 or so have spent their whole lives in the same spaces! The idea that any one of these people isn’t just as firmly formed an individual with as firmly formed relationships as Chris or Zac is out of line with what’s actually going on and a real missed opportunity to develop a richer story.
Voyagers is also frustratingly infatuated with American democracy, and its main narrative thrust ends up being that voting is the best and only way to solve every problem. By the end of the movie, the remaining crew has learned that they can make their own rules, and they’ve also learned how big a wrench one jerk can throw into a democracy when he won’t go along and how quickly most of them will abandon the dynamic – they all have personally abandoned it within the runtime. In this movie that was initially scheduled for November 2020, they simply elect their first female chief and move forward, tense in the knowledge that any one of them could cause just as stupid and violent a mutiny again with just as little effort, that horribly naïve and ineffectual “they go low, we go high” non-solution with the subtext that a solution doesn’t exist.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.