You can find many examples of films that find conflict in the basic human nature in the manner of William Golding's 1954 novel 'Lord of the Flies' did. 'Battle Royale', 'The Hunger Games', 'The Wild Boys', 'Ladyworld', 'Werewolf'... the list goes on. Each tap into the main idea of Golding's work: our innate capacity for good and evil, and how people succumb to the latter without any structure to guide human actions.
Written and directed by Neil Burger ('Divergent', 'Limitless'), 'Voyagers' introduces us to Richard (Colin Farrell, 'The Gentlemen', 'Dumbo'), a scientist and behavioural psychologist who accompanies a lab-created crew of 30 kids on a multi-generational voyage to save humanity by colonising a new world. Technically, due to the distance, it will be the young crew's grandchildren who discover the new planet. In order to prepare these teens for a trip where they'll die before they reach the destination, they've all been raised with no families or understanding of the outside world. They also have to chug a big glass of blue juice every day, 'The Last Jedi'-style, to suppress their hormonal urges.
Tye Sheridan's gentle Christopher and Fionn Whitehead's impulsive Zac are two crew members who begin to suspect they're being experimented on. What happens when they stop taking the "blue"? They both set their sights on the same young woman, Sela (Lily-Rose Depp, 'The King') as the worst parts of human nature begin to seep into this sterile scenario. What becomes of the mission when this young crew starts to crave stimulation? When their hormones start firing and they develop carnal desires?
On one level, quitting the "blue" is an allegory about growing up, creating an extreme variation on the chaotic moment when every child has to assert his or her independence and become an autonomous adult. 'Voyagers' also poses questions about our ability to be selfless in the name of a future we'll never see. For the first half-hour or so, as we follow Richard's lonely stretch of deep-space single parenthood à la 'High Life' and meet the kids with the keys to humanity's future, it's actually a fairly interesting movie.
As tension mounts aboard the star cruiser and everyone's underwear grows tighter, the sterile surroundings begin to juxtapose the violence bubbling away amongst the crew. Scott Chambliss' cramped production design was apparently influenced by 'Das Boot', but Wolfgang Petersen's film didn't have teenagers running around endless narrow hallways with electro-magnetic pulse rifles. At times, I was craving a larger sandpit for the action, something more along the lines of Grant Sputore's thematically similar but far more ambitious 'I Am Mother'.
Though seemingly indebted to James Grey's 'Ad Astra' in terms of imagery and sound design (Trevor Gureckis, who also did the music on the Apple series 'Servant', provides some agitated chords), the movie avoids IMAX-ready centrepieces in favour of focusing on the complicated social manoeuvring of Christopher, Zac and their peers. The effects-driven sequences - such as a spacewalk to repair a rumbling air purifier - are efficiently tense. Similar to Gavin Hood's 'Ender's Game', back-corridor bargaining and bullying are emphasised, which underlines the impression that this is essentially a high-school story in futuristic adventure cosplay.
Out of principle, I love movies that a) depict a character doing super repugnant shit and b) try to gel with their point of view. There is a quote I enjoy from an American director of the 1950s, Nicholas Ray, who said, "Unless you can feel that a hero is just as fucked up as you are, that you would make the same mistakes that he would make, you can have no satisfaction when he does commit a heroic act." This is a philosophy that applies to the bad shit just as well as it does to the good stuff, because anything that uses sympathy for a character's motivations to implicate the audience is performing a complex function. It's easy for viewers to sympathise with victims, but getting them to recognise themselves in a baddie can be enlightening.
The good kids are too good; the bad kids too quickly bad, and bad in the wrong way.
The real problem is Burger's screenplay (his first screenwriting credit since 2008's 'The Lucky Ones'). In order for 'Voyagers' to work, the big unravelling needs to be depicted with plain logic, as a mini-society of brainy, decent kids are broken down into barbarism. However, J.G. Ballard this is not. The majority of the kids are nameless pencil sketches, but it's the rushed characterisation of the film's villains which does the most damage; it's never clear enough how one step down the stairway connecting civility and brutality leads to another. The good kids are too good; the bad kids too quickly bad, and bad in the wrong way. Like Fernando Meirelles' 'Blindness', horniness equals inexplicable savagery and, for a select few teens, homicidal mania.
The allusions to William Golding's novel are similarly blunt. The stand-ins for Piggy, Simon, the Monster, etc. are so clear that the plot beats become telegraphed. Burger has added women to his version of 'Lord of the Flies' to emphasise the sexual tension implicit in the scenario, but a key theme of the original work was that everything was so terrible because it was an island full of boys. To that extent, the women in 'Voyagers' don't do much besides offer sensible advice whenever they aren't being groped and squabbled over.
Perhaps some of the clumsiness of 'Voyagers' can be attributed to the movie's tame classification rating - for a film so heavily focused on sweaty-palmed teens, there's no nudity and only a few brief scenes of sexual activity. There are certainly lots of interesting ideas swirling around (toxic masculinity, statements on autonomy and consent, the suppression of identity by medication, and the influence of fake news), even if they are barely explored. Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja's recent 'Aniara' was a lot more subtle and far less about the devolution to some primal form than it was about humans' reactions to doom and boredom.
It's always nice to watch some unpretentious Hollywood B-movie science fiction in a cinematic landscape smothered by franchise-obsessed, superhero-crazed blockbusters. Unfortunately, 'Voyagers' never transcends its derivative origins and basic thrills.