In movies set in a dystopian future where the planet is dying and we need to find a new home, the astronauts sent to colonize a distant planet are invariably placed in hyper-sleep pods because the journey is going to take years and years. When they wake up and stretch out, they’ll still be the same age, but their loved ones back home will be long dead.
Kudos to “Voyagers” for going in a different direction — even if that direction is just plain nuts. For at least half a movie, it’s a wildly entertaining concept with some pretty good payoffs and there was a chance we’d have the best B-movie in recent memory, but then the story takes the easy way out and we’re left wondering why they didn’t ride the original idea all the way to the finish line.
Writer-director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist,” “Divergent”) opens with a title card telling us, “AS THE EARTH GROWS HOTTER, AND DROUGHT AND DISEASE RAVAGE THE POPULATION, SCIENTISTS LOOK FOR A NEW PLANET — ONE THAT CAN SUPPORT HUMAN LIFE. IN 2063 THEY FIND IT.” The voyage will take precisely 86 years, but instead of the old “the crew will sleep for decades” approach, here’s the plan, I kid you not: “We will breed and raise our own crew.” Some 30 humans created via artificial insemination (their biological parents are all genius-level intellects) are raised in a sterile and controlled environment so they’ll never miss open spaces, sunlight and freedom. They’ll reproduce on the ship, their children will reproduce — and the grandchildren will be the ones who reach the new planet and reboot civilization.
Consider for a moment how insanely short-sighted this plan is on so many levels. Thirty people who have never interacted with the outside world, who have no experience with family or a larger society or a working economy or social strife, are going to be responsible for starting a new world? By the time we get to the third generation, imagine the psychological and emotional issues the grandchildren will be facing from the start.
Cut to years later, when the crew members are in their early 20s and the mission is a “go.” Now apparently, the ship flies itself and there will be no other humans aboard, but Colin Farrell’s Richard, a father figure of sorts to the crew, talks his way onto the ship at the last minute. As Richard keeps saying in ominous tones, these young people need someone to protect them from … something.
The rest of the story takes place on the elaborately constructed, classic future-movie set — er, I mean, ship — as we meet the crew members, a diverse group who are all very attractive and always wearing black, as if they’re starring in a 1990s Calvin Klein ad. Lily-Rose Depp is Sela, who is smart and kind and has a special, daughter-father type connection with Richard. Tye Sheridan is the handsome and dashing Christopher, a natural leader. Fionn Whitehead is Jack, who is disturbingly intense and has some alpha male tendencies that just might come into play if we get into a “Lord of the Flies” situation, cough-cough. Quintessa Swindell’s Julie, Madison Hu’s Edith and Viveik Kalra’s Peter are among the half-dozen or so thinly drawn supporting characters, and then we have about 20 great-looking people in black whose purpose is to stand in the background and mumble approval or misgivings about the latest developments.
As is the case with virtually every movie in this genre, the crew runs into major difficulties long before the mission is near completion. They hear terrifying noises in the middle of the night — I mean, it’s always the middle of the night on some level, but the noises occur when they’re sleeping — and there’s talk of an alien in their midst. There’s a repair mission that requires two crew members to do a little space walking, because it’s Movie Law that if an integral part needs to be replaced on a ship, that part must be located on the exterior of the craft. When various crew members experience certain revelations, director Burger reaches into his “Limitless” bag of tricks for fast-cut montages that look super-cool but don’t really represent anything. Nearly every major plot point serves up an intriguing question — and a disappointing answer.
Farrell provides some gravitas, taking his role seriously in a movie that cannot be taken seriously. The young cast is stuck spouting cliché-riddled lines and racing about like action stars in training, and it’s an insurmountable challenge for them to pull off. Lily-Rose Depp gives the most layered and empathetic performance, but nobody who’s in this movie will be including it on their career highlight reel decades down the road.