‘Voyagers’: Space Thriller Gets Lost In a Battle of Awakened Teenage Hormones
A cardinal rule in storytelling is that the moment you leave the kids alone they go wild. “Voyagers” raises the stakes by setting the hormonal chaos in space. Writer-director Neil Burger is almost subverting a genre here. The movie may have the familiar characters of a YA story, with the same conflicts that could brew today in any American high school. But by giving it a sci-fi gloss, the film manages to be an entertaining highlight of strong young actors. “I think the best science fiction movies are about humans, they’re not about space or aliens,” Burger told Entertainment Voice when discussing the making of his latest film. “This movie is about human nature and human nature in a vacuum. Who are we when we strip away all of our cultural influences and baggage?”
Burger’s tale is set in 2063, when humankind has inevitably let Earth go to waste. Scientists manage to find a planet that can sustain human life, but it takes 86 years to get there. A plan is devised to send a group of lab-created children whose grandchildren will be the colonists arriving at our new home. Providing adult supervision for the first explorers is Richard (Colin Farrell). Fast forward a few years and the kids are now fit teenagers. Two of the sharpest, the clean-cut Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and rebellious Zac (Fionn Whitehead) discover that a blue liquid they are made to drink all the time has chemicals designed to keep their senses subdued. They suspect it’s to keep their emerging puberty in check and thus prevent procreation that could overpopulate their ship. Christopher and Zac decide to stop drinking the substance without telling Richard. The rush of new sensations begins to create its own tensions. Zac starts feeling the sexual rush of being near women on the ship, such as the disciplined Sela (Lily-Rose Depp). When Richard is killed during an emergency spacewalk, the teens are left to fend for themselves out in the cosmos, and when Zac tells everyone to stop drinking the blue stuff, all bets are off.
Burger’s work reveals a wide scope of interests that tend to range from low-budget intrigue to large scale entertainment. His “Interview with the Assassin” was a haunting mockumentary about a man convinced his neighbor might be the real shooter who killed President John F. Kennedy. But then he will do a film like “Limitless,” a visually trippy ride about a man who takes a pill allowing him to access all of the mind’s hidden abilities. “Voyagers” may be set in the vastness of space, but its setting is actually confined, staged within an elegant spaceship with a clean, futuristic sheen. “The set is very minimal and stripped down. It’s the bare minimum one would need,” said Burger. With its narrow hallways lit by a hard glow, Burger and cinematographer Enrique Chediak let the camera glide through the spaceship’s corridors, taking on different tone as the teens’ senses awaken. At first everyone looks orderly, confined to their stations, but once they stop taking the blue drink the halls become runways for the exuberant teenagers to race through or find a hiding place to have sex. The production design looks inspired by space odysseys like “Solaris,” where the visual effects are subdued and it’s more about the humans walking around the vessel. “The spaceship had to be very real, not like the fantasy of a spaceship,” said Burger, “I did a lot of research about various plans for deep space travel. Everything is about the bare minimum to support life. So as a consequence the ship is confined and tight. Yet I also wanted it to be cinematic. So we made these long, narrow hallways that lead to these cramped cabins, this way we would mount the cameras on rails in the ceiling to run really fast. So it could feel like wild abandon.”
“I wrote it a number of years ago and I was interested in those themes of confinement and what it does to people under pressure, but I keep telling people that suddenly it feels very of the moment,” said Burger about the movie coming out in a time of pandemic and quarantine. “We’ve been confined during lockdown and the crew of this ship are in the same kind of claustrophobic environment, just desperate to be set free. But there’s also the political aspect of it, how Zac begins to use fear to build paranoia in his followers so they can do what he wants.” Once Richard is out of commission, the ship becomes a “Lord of the Flies” fable. Suddenly there is no sense of order of centralized command. Someone has to take charge. The two personalities who come into conflict are the very same who liberated everyone’s senses. Christopher believes in following their mission guidelines, while Zac wants everyone to indulge in debauchery. He reasons it’s worthless to be so disciplined about a mission they themselves will not complete. “Voyagers” avoids stale plotting by turning the story into a wider parable about power without control, which is more dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced.
“I found the motivations behind what Zac does to be so interesting,” said Fionn Whitehead when discussing his role with Entertainment Voice. “He returns to this raw, animalistic state. Neil is an incredible director but also an incredible writer. We talked a lot before we even shot. We discussed Zac and why he was the way he was. It felt very collaborative. Well got on so well, including the cast. It was quite an achievement because the cast was so large. At the end of the day we were able to share jokes and laugh, which was essential after shooting such heavy material for such long hours.” Burger manages to transplant a lot of YA personalities into the environment of “Voyagers,” but it works because a life or death situation in space somehow gives them a fresh sense of tension. If Christopher and Sela are the ones following the rules, Zac and his own acolytes threaten to overturn the ship’s inner world through anarchy. With testosterone rushing like a drug they seek to devour the food supply, unlock a cache of weapons and forget the mission plan. There are strong performances throughout by fellow cast members such as Quintessa Swindell as anxiety-prone Julie and Isaac Hempstead Wright as Edward, a timid voice of sanity amid the growing chaos. “I actually find doing the darker, more intense scenes easier to relate with,” said Whitehead, “the big thing is understanding that no person thinks they’re the bad guy or that they’re wrong. Everyone are very complex human beings. Looking at Zac and what he wants out of the situation, he doesn’t just want to be mean for the sake of being mean but to connect with people. That’s how I looked at him, from the perspective of someone who’s been very abandoned but seeks attention and safety. He’s never been taught how to cope.”
“Voyagers” keeps a classic tradition in science fiction going where the fantasy is a conduit for our present human quirks and condition. Leaving naïve, inexperienced teenagers alone in space is a recipe for chaos, but the same could be said about any place where base impulse begins to reign. We’ve seen these themes before, but Burger imaginatively applies them to the future. Climate change may be threatening our species and space exploration is surely advancing, but human nature has a stubborn way of staying the same. The moment Zac feels he has power, he tries to abuse it, while Christopher has the makings of a natural leader, but will the others follow him? “To me the trick is to just lay back and let these characters be and not just emphasize their age. They have to deal with the situation in front of them,” said Burger. “Sometimes they act with a certain kind of maturity and sometimes they’re innocent and foolish.”
“Voyagers” releases April 9 in select theaters.