VOYAGERS Review

A quick ten minutes into the latest from writer/director Neil Burger and we're hit with the question of how fair or unfair is it that people don't get to choose the environment or the situation they're born into. It's unfair, of course, that some are born into wealth and privilege while racism, misogyny, poverty, and countless other disadvantages are intrinsic to the existence of others from the day they're ushered into this world. This is a typical conclusion when assessing systems and how each individual entering that system, by choice or not, has a different starting line. These cut and dry conclusions, as unfair as they may be, are still very much a fascinating topic though, especially when considered in the context of children being created in a lab and curated from the time of their birth for a single purpose, a purpose they solely exist to serve, and a purpose they have absolutely no say in. That they were born from donors and not loving parents willing to take on the responsibility of their nurturing is the first disadvantage they face, but that they are then expected to simply conform to the needs of the previous generation and sacrifice their own sense of purpose for the mistakes of those elders is the next daunting reality they have to accept. Thus is the premise of Burger's Voyagers, a science fiction action/drama that like any good piece of science fiction works best when it's exploring its main idea or concept and the questions that spurn from as much rather than trying to answer them. That said, what Burger is attempting to cover here is engaging ground nonetheless as he dives into the deep, dark void of space in order to isolate ideas around nature versus nurture and if the wiring and influence of these subjects' genetic inheritance is enough to guarantee they not only have the intelligence and ingenuity to complete their mission, but the willpower to avoid the predictable foibles of human nature. What these children are born into, what they are tasked with, and what is expected of them is not fair and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone that didn't agree with that assessment, but the fact remains no one is granted the opportunity to choose what they're born into though there is still the choice of what type of person they want to become no matter the circumstances. Voyagers seeks to examine the necessary balance of innocence and experience required to fully grasp the possibilities of this line of thought via the guise of a genre film that sports sleek sets and pretty people that thankfully succumbs more often than not to the whims of its notions than to the trappings of its brand. 

Zac (Fionn Whitehead) and Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) have a contemptuous relationship in Voyagers to say the least.
© 2021 - Liongate 

Opening with the literal joining of a sperm and egg from a Nobel laureate in physics winner and an MIT bioengineer we are told that the Earth has grown hotter and that drought and disease have begun to ravage the population. As a result, scientists have begun looking for a new planet that can sustain human life and by the time the film begins we are told that in 2063 they found one such planet, but that it will take an eighty-six year "voyage" to reach this habitable environment. These carefully selected embryos were created so that they might be raised as the first-generation crew of this voyage to a new world. Trained in isolation so no connections with Earth were formed these children were meant to be sent into space alone as early as possible. The crew would embark on this scouting mission with the knowledge they will be the link between the past and the future, that they are being entrusted with the survival of the human race, and that through their participation in artificial fertilization and incubation they will have children aboard this ship and that it will be their grandchildren who, at the end of the aforementioned eighty-six year journey, will determine if this newly discovered planet is in fact inhabitable. There is concern from upper management, as embodied by Colin Farrell's Richard, that while there is complete confidence in this crew's capabilities, they will inevitably still encounter challenges along the way. Given Richard has been a key figure in their development thus far he elects to go on this one-way trip with them, serving as the inaugural Captain. What this crew doesn't know is that they're being drugged in order to suppress their personalities. Ten years after launch these now teenagers begin to realize they are dull, docile individuals whose sexual desires and pleasure responses have been repressed for the sake of the mission's success. One can imagine the anger this might stir up in a seventeen-year-old - not only for the lack of sensation they're being deprived of, but by virtue of the rebellion inherent to this stage of development. So, it is only natural that upon learning they are being controlled that they begin to revolt and further speculate about how else they're being lied to. When coming face to face with the full scope of the purpose of their existence it's not difficult to understand why many of these teenagers view their existence as unimportant or if at least important in the scheme of the success of the mission how their existence doesn't feel meaningful in any personal sense. It is at this point that Burger queues up the melodrama.

The first forty-five or so minutes of the film is genuinely intriguing with multiple contemplative conversations happening around the creation of these character's lives and their purpose. They explore if genetic donors are the same as parents if they still get their natures from them as well as if what is referred to as "the blue" (the drug they're required to drink) is meant more as a repressor of their sexual desires and sensations or if it is more positioned to help deal with living the way they've been forced to live. These kinds of musings paired with the classic existential questions of what's out there, why are we here, and where are we going lead to a few narrative strands strong enough to survive the imminent arrival of the consequences these actions and considerations have wrought. It's not that the film turns into Murder Aboard the Spaceship Express or anything, but there is murder, double crossings, a struggle for power, and all the things that would seemingly offer tasty drama. In the context of Burger's film and screenplay though, these genre trademarks only seem to get in the way of getting at the heart of what the writer/director actually wants to discuss. Burger, who helmed the star-affirming Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless utilizes many of the same techniques he used in that film to display someone accessing 100% of their brain's abilities to also actualize what it feels like for these teenagers when finally in full control of their own feelings and desires. Burger is essentially combining his experience with the young-adult soap operas that he garnered from helming the first installment of that doomed Divergent series with that of the bag of tricks he used on Limitless; almost as if fulfilling what he wasn't able to finish in that YA franchise. Nonetheless, the problem Voyagers encounters after pushing past its focus on Richard and his conflicted relationship not with the mission, but with the treatment of his crew is that Farrell's character is more engaging and more well-realized than the majority of the group of teenagers onboard. Led by the trio of Christopher (Tye Sheridan), Zac (Dunkirk's Fionn Whitehead), and Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) each are given something akin to stock characters with Sheridan as the hero, Whitehead as the mostly flavorless villain, and Depp as the strong foil who's capable in her own right, but largely viewed only as a prize. The exception here is Chante Adams' Phoebe who is the real hero of the piece with her ability to look forward instead of only existing in the moment as well as for her sense of defiance and courage to stand-up to those who oppose her. Maybe it's simply that Phoebe is a better person than Zac or that she's clearly more mature than Christopher, but it's evident from moment one with the teenage characters that the girls should run this new world.    

Christopher (Tye Sheridan) discovers a revealing truth about he and his fellow voyagers' purpose on this multi-generational mission they was born to fulfill.
© 2021 - Liongate

Casting Farrell in this role might be the best choice the film makes as the actor's presence inherently deceives the audience into believing with almost zero doubt that his character carries with him an ulterior motive or dark secret. Yes, it's noble to be an explorer in the sense of going where no man has gone before especially when it's to ensure the survival of humanity, but (and read no further if you want to be pleasantly surprised, I guess) by the end of the film when no major plot twist has occurred and the viewer is expected to understand Richard is in fact a stand-up guy with no ax to grind and only a desire to be honest with these children he alone has raised it makes his role both in the film and in their lives all the more tragic and all the more noble. While still at the behest of a major corporation and/or the government and while still acting in accordance with their defined processes and procedures it's evident early on that Richard desires to be as transparent with his crew as possible - both so that they trust him and so that they don't lose faith in him. It may seem an odd point of focus, but it is this clear sense of virtue that Richard also imparts on Depp's Sela that provides the most clarity among all the introspection and is key to the prevailing themes and hopes. Sela is a tender soul who, in the time we get alone with she and Richard, expresses those feelings of unimportance. Richard, the only soul on board the spacecraft who knows what life on Earth was like before departing and the only one who has any memory of what to miss, reassures Sela that their lives possess meaning and importance due to the fact they are providing for the future in the biggest way anyone could; by instilling a sense of purpose and ensuring Sela that her time - no matter what she does with it - will be well spent is tremendously defining in the life of this character. Furthermore, Richard moves forward with his commitment knowing trouble is inevitable, knowing there is nothing he'll be able to do to prevent the bad times from happening no matter in what form they arrive, and he moves forward with the hope that the bad times are worth it to save who we are. And like Richard, Burger's desire or at least intent with Voyagers seems to be to display a sampling of humanity in these developing, evolving minds and study how this is emblematic of society at large. Despite the diverse personalities and temperaments that exist within and the inherent, often primal urges towards violence and/or dominance the everlasting hope is that kindness and goodness prevail over impulsive and irrational thinkers. It's a lot to condense into a sensually-charged sci-fi thriller, but in the end, when Sela asks the foreboding question of how are they to ensure what occurred doesn't happen again, how they are to move forward one feels confident in trusting that they will figure out that, like with life on Earth, the same answer applies to a fulfilling life in space...balance. Balance is the key to everything.  

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