As the 21st century comes to a close, Earthlings are living on an overheated, dying planet. One sign of hope exists in the universe — and for once it’s not Mars. In a galaxy far, far away, another blue planet exhibits pulsating signs of water, oxygen, and some form of alien life. The 2063 iteration of NASA would like to send a squad of fearless astronauts to scout out the territory. There’s only one hitch. The estimated time of arrival at said distant planet is approximately 80 years. Any adult capable of attempting the spaceward flight plan will not live to see it through.
For some unexplained reason, cryogenic sleep, or some version of suspended animation, hasn’t been invented. And yet, practically every sci-fi movie ever made depends on that particular technology to ensure the characters don’t age whilst traversing the vast cosmos. Didn’t anyone in Neil Burger’s Voyagers see Alien (1979)? This singular oversight turns out to be the engine that ignites the plot. Humans still have plenty of fancy screens to swipe at in order to absorb information. But long-distance space flights are a one-way ticket to a gravity-less grave.
Instead of sending a team of astronauts to their deaths in space, the international space federation — alarmingly American-centric — bioengineers a dozen babies. A short voiceover informs the audience that, in one prototypical case, the sperm of a Harvard scholar is implanted in an M.I.T. scientist’s egg. Or vice versa. When these kids later grow up to be sulky teenagers, you wonder if the reference to that privileged background in some way accounts for the ensuing conflict.
Richard (Colin Farrell) has been a father figure to these space cadets since they were manufactured in clear plastic wombs. The original sacrificial plan is to send them upward on their own. But as their mentor, he can’t bear the thought. When he tells his supervisor that he wants to join them, she reminds him that he won’t return. With a melancholy glance and a teary glint in his eye, Richard gives her an allusive reply. His affliction, such as it is, never gets filled in with a backstory. Since the movie’s primary concern is hormonal adolescents, Richard’s past gets short shrift as does our time with a subdued Farrell.
Deprived of Earth’s simple pleasures — such as outdoor picnics on sunny days or parental hugs — the cloned teens are initially presented as cerebral beings with placid emotions. Unfortunately for the future of their intended mission, Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Zac (Fionn Whitehead) discover that something’s amiss with the blue juice they’ve all been drinking. They manage nearly ten seconds of computer sleuthing before discovering “the blue” is drugging them into a pacific state.
Once Christopher and Zac decide to stop drinking the blue, their repressed, untrained emotions get the better of them. They run down corridors, wrestle each other and shout out loud like cavemen discovering how good meat tastes after roasting on an open fire. The script, liberally borrowing the same pent up hostilities from Lord of the Flies, further complicates their relationship with the addition of a love triangle.
Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) is shocked by Zac’s vulpine advances — but confident enough to reject him. When he later senses a connection between her and Christopher, Zac goes on the warpath. As the alpha villain, Whitehead (Dunkirk) leaves as much of an impression here as Tim Roth does in Rob Roy (1995), in part because everyone else is so dutifully restrained. But the actor’s eyes also exude an untamed ferocity. His jawline frequently trembles with rage. Whereas Sheridan and Depp are comfortably numb together. Their romance, sadly, is nowhere as nuanced as the forbidden affair in another similarly-themed sci-fi film Equals (2015).
Apart from a cameo appearance by Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran Stark), the diverse supporting cast in Voyagers recede into the background like silhouettes on a repeating pattern of wallpaper. When not somnolent or histrionic, they’re as content to follow instructions as the clones in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Unlike Ishiguro, Burger (Divergent), who wrote the screenplay and directed, isn’t interested in exploring what it means to be a motherless clone. He panders to the bratty, volatile side of his teenage audience and lands on a simplistic premise. The kids are alright without society’s constricting set of rules. In order to set up a potential sequel (Voyagers II: The Arrival), he also ends the film prematurely and unimaginatively, without letting us land on the new planet or get a glimpse of its welcoming or hostile inhabitants.
Voyagers opens in theaters on April 9.