Voyagers review: 2001 meets Ethics 101 in ponderous sci-fi drama
Bored teenagers take big moral arguments into space in this sci-fi drama heading for theaters.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
When you're a teenager, everything can feel like the end of the world. But for the crew of adolescent astronauts in new sci-fi drama Voyagers, it literally could be -- because their teen angst threatens a mission to restart humanity.
These kids have been born and bred specially to head for space as the ravaged Earth dies behind them. But they don't take too kindly to learning that mission control is manipulating them, and the next thing you know, the rules have gone out the airlock and it's all turned Lord of the Flies.
Voyagers is in theaters now.
Colin Farrell headlines as a sad-eyed pied piper leading the flock of kids into space, showing a father's sorrow through a charismatically subdued performance. But when there's only one adult in the cast, you know he's on borrowed time, and that leaves the pouting but dead-eyed kids to carry the film. Having been raised in a sterile, high-tech environment that's cinematically appealing but quite clearly a bad idea for raising healthily balanced children, the little'uns grow into dour, affectless teenagers who eat and work out and pilot the ship in austere silence. Their recreation consists of listening to classical music -- probably because if they were allowed to watch literally any spaceship movie they'd know some kind of psycho freakout is clearly round the corner. The flattened, muttering performances and a motif of plodding down sterile corridors fits the eerie atmosphere but isn't terribly engaging.
Dunkirk actor Fionn Whitehead and X-Men star Tye Sheridan show flashes of visceral excitement as their characters revel in the unexpected and heady sensation of becoming young men. Intoxicated by awakening urges and growing strength, Whitehead's volatile jock is whipped up by a roiling cocktail of ego, desire and jealousy. But Whitehead and Sheridan are oddly stuck with a deadened acting style even when they're supposedly free to develop personalities. Still, at least their roles have some passion -- unlike that of Lily-Rose Depp, who gets stuck frowning a lot and telling off the naughty boys.
As all impulse control goes out the window, the kids challenge not only the mission but also the very basics of human morality. In fact, Voyagers takes on a commendable amount of issues: It begins as a climate change parable, exploring whether people have a responsibility to improve a future they won't live to see. But it's also a meditation on mortality. And a treatise on whether man is innately savage. It explores factionalism; the corrupting influence of demagogue leaders; free will; an individual's responsibility to society; parental authority and expectations; and the uncomfortable reality of how long it takes to travel through space. And it also finds time to touch on sexual consent.
That's an awful lot of subtext. Although it hardly qualifies as subtext when the characters just flat-out state the big questions. Voyagers feels more like a YA primer on human nature, a hypermodern Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm packaging big questions in a way younger viewers can grasp. You can imagine a teacher showing this in school and then leading a class discussion about ethics until the bell rings for lunch.
As well as introducing big but fairly basic moral questions, the film also works as something of a sci-fi starter pack. An early montage of empty and echoing spaceship corridors directly cribs a visual motif from Alien. The pulsing synths recall Blade Runner. And it evokes the overall feel of countless going-nuts-in-space stories, from 2001 and Solaris to Moon and Passengers. Who knows, maybe a younger viewer will check this out and get more into sci-fi, like young Fall Out Boy fans discovering the Clash. Or Set It Off fans discovering Fall Out Boy. I dunno.
Speaking of genre trappings, though it's released in theaters, Voyagers feels much more like the many and various limited-budget sci-fi flicks on Netflix. There're a couple of perfunctory mysteries, and the single location becomes an increasingly scary place as the kids let their paranoia run riot. But these subplots never ignite into full-blown horror territory. Instead, they exist only to build an eerie atmosphere that motivates the kids in some of their darker decisions. The flick certainly never follows its train of thought to the end by spiraling into the sort of demented imagery seen in films like Event Horizon, Sunshine or High Life that might've justified a place on the big screen. Spectacle-wise, this is certainly no Godzilla vs. Kong.
Still, for those of you who can't (or won't) get to a theater, you'll be able to find Voyagers in its natural streaming habitat soon.
New Movies Coming in 2023 From Marvel, Netflix, DC and More