Writer-director Neil Burger (“Divergent”) crafts a science fiction drama where teenagers govern themselves in this “Lord of the Flies” space odyssey featuring a solid cast of today’s rising stars led by Tye Sheridan (“Ready Player One”) and Lily-Rose Depp (“Crisis”). “Voyagers” takes place in the near future at a time when Earth is on a downward spiral. In a desperate measure to save the human race, a group of kids and their mentor (Colin Farrell) are launched into space to begin an 86-year mission to find a habitable planet.
Burger is no stranger to youth-oriented science fiction. He directed the first installment of the “Divergent” series based on Veronica Roth’s young adult dystopian novels and served as the executive producer for the other two films in the trilogy.
“Voyagers” began as an image in the writer-directors mind of a group of young people inside a spaceship hunting each other. From there, the original story grew with themes of confinement, long-term space exploration and tribalism. William Golding’s 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies” is the obvious influencer here but there are shades of “The Hunger Games,” “Alien,” and the 2016 film “Equals” with Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult living in a futuristic utopian society with no emotions.
The year is 2036. Earth is dying. In order to save the human race, an expedition is launched to colonize a distant planet. How distant? It would take 86 years to reach it. Of course, the crew would all be dead by then because, unlike “Alien,” we have yet to invent the hypersleep chamber which keeps people from aging while they sleep in a cryogenically frozen state. That won’t happen until at least 2089 depending on your Alienverse point of reference.
So, move to Plan B, which involves genetically bred children via in vitro fertilization, raised in isolation within the confines of a special facility, who have never experienced the outside world or contact with parents — making it easier for them to leave Earth behind and prepare for a life in space. Their only adult contact is Richard (Colin Farrell), a teacher and guardian who will accompany the kids on their mission to guide them through the first phase of the voyage.
Farrell is a welcomed presence in the film but, as imagined, his role is relatively smaller than that of his young costars. There are hints of a tragedy in his character’s past, which partly explains why he wouldn’t miss Earth. Richard wouldn’t be leaving anyone behind plus he feels like a surrogate father to the kids after training them since birth.
Since the voyage is expected to last nearly nine decades, the children will eventually breed and have their own children, who will also follow suit, therefore it will be the grandchildren of the original 30 voyagers who reach humanity’s final frontier and set up colonization.
“Voyagers” becomes a coming-of-age story set in space that spirals out of control once the teens realize they are being drugged in order to keep them docile and focused during the trip. Christopher (Tye Sheridan) is the first to figure it out when he detects a toxin in the blue liquid they drink daily to help with digestion. Best friend Zac (Fionn Whitehead) suggests they stop drinking it and soon the two are experiencing emotions for the first time.
At first, joy and happiness enter the picture as Zac and Christopher laugh and wrestle, but eventually, jealousy and anger come into play when the two friends pine after the same girl, chief medical officer Sela (Lily-Rose Depp). Christopher eventually cools his jets and comes to his senses while Zac gets out of control, appoints himself the ship’s leader, and divides the crew into two opposing factions.
Sheridan, a native Texan who made his debut at 11 in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” has risen to prominence with his observational style of acting. He’s great at playing the person you underestimate. The character that’s always watching, learning, and occasionally becoming unhinged. Although his dialogue was sparse, Sheridan was terrific in Rick Alverson’s 2019 film “The Mountain” opposite Jeff Goldblum. In “Voyagers” the actor again spends much of his time contemplating his next move. Christopher personifies goodness yet he’s not a natural-born leader — that title belongs to Sela.
Lily-Rose Depp who can be seen in the current opioid thriller “Crisis” from director Nicholas Jarecki, has a commanding presence on screen. The French actress and model — she’s the current face of Chanel No. 5 L’eau — delivers another solid performance as Sela, the mission’s natural leader whose character is shaped by her close friendship with Richard.
Burger has assembled a talented cast of young actors to tell his story, most notably Fionn Whitehead (“Dunkirk”) as the antagonistic Zac, who injects vitality into the story. Quintessa Swindell, Archie Madekwe, Madison Hu, and Chanté Adams have smaller roles, but they still bring their A-Game.
Watching teenagers rage as hormones get out of whack sets up an interesting premise. “Me Culture” takes over and violence comes to the forefront. Here’s where “Voyagers” should have gone for an R-rating instead of remaining stationary in safe YA territory. While there is collateral damage, I feel it should have pushed the envelope with such high stakes to create stronger tension. The film’s conclusion straight out of Ridley Scott’s playbook is anticipated, however, the performances by the cast stand out making this journey worthwhile.