Human behavior can be unsurprising in both positive and negative ways in our world, but observed in isolation and suddenly it has much more of a shock factor. Neil Burger, best known for Divergent and Limitless, returns with his latest feature Voyagers, a sci-fi thriller starring the likes of Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, and Fionn Whitehead. Set in the not-so-distant future, humans continue to destroy Earth and in fear of the consequences, an expedition aspiring to discover a new habitable planet begins.
In labs, babies are conceived artificially and once they are birthed from their nurturing cocoon-like environment, they are trained like astronauts. With no family, they look up to expedition leader Richard (Colin Farrell), who becomes a synthetic father to roughly 30 children. We hardly get any time on Earth with these characters before they are propelled into outer space at what can’t be more than roughly 8-years old, with the goal being for their great-grandchildren to be the pilgrims who establish a new planet. It feels as though the film could have benefited from exploring childhood more in-depth; after all, it is the growing period where humans can easily be conditioned to think and act in a certain way.
As time flies, the children fall into a mundane routine involving scientific research and physical training. They are served a liquid called ‘The Blue’ at regular intervals throughout the cycle of a day, without questioning its purpose. Eventually, a handful of the astronauts who have grown into teenagers discover that The Blue is a medicated substance that suppresses their emotions, feelings, and consequently their actions. Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) are the first to abstain from the medication, experiencing how it feels to be actually human for the very first time. Quickly, many others follow their example and very few abiding crew continue to follow protocol, forming two packs.
It doesn’t take long for things to go wrong once the passengers see everything Richard claimed to protect them from, resulting in acts of aggression and lust. Watching these characters begin to act on their natural instincts does become quite terrifying. The ship where the crew once lived harmoniously is now a cesspool of violence and desire. There is no understanding of what we believe to be moral and immoral. In acts of survival, even the select few who continue taking The Blue are forced to feel new emotions in order to respond to the tyranny of the ship – evoking ideas of evolution and natural selection.
Voyagers is unique in that as sci-fi, the protagonists are not threatened by any monsters or extraterrestrials. Instead, the threats are themselves. Once they are unhinged, they quickly become their own undoing as they sabotage their mission. Placing these roles in a vacuum allows for some really great character work that mimics the ways in which chaos erupts from within modern society. When they begin to quarrel, the plot intensifies as the more reckless they get, their chances of survival get slimmer. The stakes are high, allowing for us to grow invested in the well-being of both the abiding and unabiding crew.
Initially, all members of the voyage are zombie-like in their etiquette, making it all the more impressive when the actors are able to shift between their character’s lack of personality to raw intensity. For Fionn Whitehead, this part is different from those he has stunned in before. Known from his breakout role in Dunkirk, Whitehead is given his time to shine and creates an antagonist that is eerie yet so realistic. His performance truly stands out and visibly shows the lengths of his range.
Tye Sheridan also gives a good performance, managing to navigate tonal and emotional shifts with ease. Colin Farrell is brilliant as always during his screen time. Lily-Rose Depp’s turnout becomes more inspiring as the story progresses. However, she is never allowed to reach the full potential of her key role. Another stand-out is Quintessa Swindell, who manages to captivate with what they are allowed. Unfortunately, Game of Throne‘s Issac Hempstead Wright is criminally underused. His part is forgotten about halfway through the film and is left to fade into the background.
The minimalistic ship is a great setting to prevent viewers from distraction. The heart of Voyagers lies in the characters and their discovering of instincts. Although, one all too distracting aspect is multiple montages of animals, nature, and other strange clips thrown together and incorporated when passengers begin to feel complex emotions. They are an unnatural eyesore in what is for the most part a visually pleasing film.
The narrative itself is captivating and enticing, aside from a few decisions that don’t quite fit into the larger story at play. The film is nothing without its cast; it relies heavily on their talents to convince the audience that they are observing them in isolation, almost as if it were a human zoo. Thrilling, unnerving, and above all else entertaining, Voyagers succeeds in its intention to keep us on the edge of our seats in anticipation of what may happen next, simply through the intense means of the human condition.