Gather any group of hormonal, hyped-up, headstrong teenagers in any one space, and you’ll see some interesting dynamics play out. Strand a gaggle of them in outer space with no chaperones or end(er’s) game in sight, however, and things are likely to get extremely tribal. Like every other sci-fi thriller, writer-director Neil Burger’s Voyagers owes a lot to 2001: A Space Odyssey: the gleaming white hallways and corridors, the slightly inhuman affect of some characters, the astro-jumpsuit chic, a shot of a person floating untethered and breathless into the void. But what keeps popping into your head as you watch the Y.A. dramatics play out is that earlier movie’s “Dawn of Man” sequence, in which humanity’s ancestors simultaneously discover the concepts of community and violence. The youngsters boldly going where no man has gone before may be the future of our species. But the second these adolescents get in touch with their primitive instincts, you might as well be watching early Homo erectus beat each other with bones. Plus ça change.
In this particular dystopia scenario, it’s 2063 and Earth has been in a state of decay for decades. But we have finally found a planet suitable for relocation — water, oxygen, the works! — and can now jumpstart humanity’s second act. Phew! There’s one caveat: It will take 86 years to get there. A crew of 30 kids are scientifically bred and raised in isolation to act as the first wave of travelers. After crash courses in science and math and agriculture, the youngsters begin their journey into the final frontier; their teacher/primary caregiver/father figure, a man named Richard (Colin Farrell), will accompany them. (We see this adult sitting in front of rows of suited-up kids as a countdown plays over the soundtrack, giving us the impression that we are witnessing not just our last gasp for existence but a massive field trip across the universe. It’s one of the few arresting shots in the film.) Artificial fertilization and incubation will occur during the trek. Their grandchildren will be the ones to step foot in this new Garden of Eden. They are merely transporting their seed to this new soil.
Fast-forward 10 years, and these star tykes have matured into striking adolescents. Among this cosmic CW Network casting session is Christopher (Tye Sheridan), one of the more inquisitive members on board. He notices a toxin has appeared in their irrigation system. Along with his best friend Zac (Fionn Whitehead, from the interactive Black Mirror episode “Bandersnatch”), they do some after-hours snooping and trace the element back to “the Blue,” a liquid the crew consumes after meals. This is what keeps these kids in check, tamping down their pleasure centers and keeping other, more base urges at bay. Christopher and Zac decide to stop drinking it — cue a montage of crashing waves, dilating pupils and some extremely psychedelic hand-holding. Richard becomes worried about the duo’s change in behavior, especially the way they start looking at their old friend Sela (Lily-Rose Depp). Then an accident occurs, and these kids are left to their own devices. Everyone stops taking the Blue. All bets are now off.
“Lord of the Flies among the stars” has been the go-to description for Voyagers since the project was announced years ago — we assume runner-ups included “Spring Break Off the Coast of Saturn” and “Lust in Space.” The joys of postpubescence kick in, as well as an urge to party. (In space, no one can hear you rage, bro!) Burger and cinematographer Enrique Chediak turn those gleaming white corridors, the ones they love tracking their cameras up and down, into a carbon copy of a cluttered high-school hallway. A few kids even succumb to a particular kind of teen nihilism as well: We’re all just colonialist fodder, why should anything matter? There are some interesting notions that keep getting pecked at on the periphery, about what happens when nature is temporarily taken out of the equation and your nurturing is designed to make you an automaton out of necessity. When your previous idea of rebellion is turning up the volume on your Beethoven, only to have your teenage experience suddenly hit you all at once, what are the ramifications? Can a prefab herd mentality dedicated to nothing survival itself survive when all the herd wants to do now is fuck and fight?
What Voyagers primarily gives you is one long stand-off to establish an alpha, which is why the Lord of the Flies tag is both reductive and, well, 100 percent on-point. Despite being off the Blue, Christopher retains a sense of decency and a moral compass. Zac, not so much. Both have designs on Sela, which partially fuels Zac’s insistence that the mysterious noise that occasionally pops up is the byproduct of aliens having entered the ship, and they might have infiltrated his enemies, and you should trust no one but him. Anybody looking for something substantial to glom on to here — to see if there’s an engine rumbling and purring underneath the genre hood — will unfortunately have to settle for a political metaphor that’s heavy-handed even in zero gravity. Not even the abundance of Sheridan’s screen presence (the 24-year-old actor has a magnificent Young Monty Clift vibe about him) can keep the story from sagging and your interest from drifting. It’s all over long before the inevitable airlock climax.
This is a pulpy B movie that is dying to be a prestige project, and there’s a big part of you that wishes everyone had just leaned into the teensploitation aspects more. Whether or not Voyagers was conceived as a cash-in on the wave of Y.A. sci-fi franchises (including Divergent, which Neil Burger also directed) that were huge a decade or so ago, it certainly feels like it’s trying to surf that wave regardless — so why not go full Corman on it? If you are at all familiar with Burger’s previous work, notably The Illusionist (2006) and Limitless (2011), then you know that he’s a highly functional director who would have probably thrived in the old studio system; you can imagine him sitting in a backlot commissary, comparing notes with Edward Dmytryk and Delmer Daves. “Workmanlike” is always a compliment in his case, but workmanlike isn’t necessarily what this sci-fi needs. You want it to be a little more cosmic-sloppy, more hormonal, as unbridled and off the leash as its heroes and villains. It needs less 2001, Alien, et al. leftovers. It needs more WWLCD: What Would Larry Clark Do?