In a near dystopian future, Earth has become uninhabitable due to climate change. After discovering a planet decades away that could support human life, scientists ensure the species' survival by breeding generations of young cadets from Earth’s best and brightest — then launching them into space.
This could be the basic logline for many a space odyssey, and there’s undoubtedly an enduring quality to the idea of a cross-cosmos pilgrimage that carries both impossibly high stakes and a whiff of inevitability.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Ridley Scott’s Alien, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and countless others have mined the setup for conflict both situational, as the dark vacuum of space beckons, and emotional, as those on board map their insignificance against the scale of the universe.
Though light years behind classics of the genre, one box-office bomb from this year earns points for exploring such grand themes within the reliably watchable confines of visually bold, conceptually familiar YA entertainment. Now that Voyagers is streaming on HBO Max, here’s why it’s worth a look.
In Voyagers, scientists hope those living aboard the spacecraft that serves as the film’s only setting will grow up, procreate, and enable their grandchildren to start over on a distant planet. What the big brains at mission control don’t account for is that the first generation’s discovery of this none-too-appealing lot in life — coupled with the revelation they’ve been drugged to ensure their compliance — will spell disaster.
The premise of Voyagers marks it as a pastiche, shifting the totalitarian tensions of George Lucas’ THX 1138 (and, by proxy, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) into space then resolving them via a descent into Lord of the Flies-style tribalism. “We’re just gonna die in the end, so why can’t we do what we want?” cadet Christopher (Tye Sheridan) asks adult mentor Richard (Colin Farrell) at one point. “What’s the difference whether we’re good or not?”
Voyagers doesn’t answer this question, though it signals an existential crisis for the film’s characters. Conceived in test tubes and raised within the blanched confines of the spacecraft, the First Generation is embryonic by design. Rigorously educated and required solely to repopulate aboard the ship then expire in transit, their emotions are regulated by a drug they’re regularly told to ingest, called “The Blue.” As chief medical officer Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) quietly notes, the lives of their First Generation matter less than those of the Third Generation, which will be the first to colonize their new planet at the end of the 86-year voyage.
What’s a hormonal young fellow to do? Once Chris discovers that The Blue is a behavioral inhibitor, he and his prickly best friend Zac (Fionn Whitehead) decide to stop drinking it. Richard learns of this and confronts Chris, urging him not to deviate from the program. But as Chris and Zac sprint down the space station’s endless corridors, their energy levels spiking with testosterone and adrenaline, they’re hooked on the feeling.
In these sequences, the pair conspicuously evoke microscopic participants in a survivor-style sperm race, seeing the hermetic confines of their spacecraft as an anesthetized tract through which they can wriggle toward release. Choreographing this fascination upfront, Voyagers opens on a full-screen petri dish of sperm, followed by a sequence in which a zygote is seen developing into a human child.
And throughout, the sleek modernist design of the spacecraft — all angular lines and spotless interiors — adds to the sense of these characters as lab rats navigating an alternately expansive and claustrophobic maze. Production designer Scott Chambliss makes the film’s singular setting feel at once lived-in and intolerably cold. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak keeps the camera moving fluidly to accentuate the mounting sense of dread as Zac encourages the rest of the crew to give in to their base emotions.
Suffice to say, Voyagers is far from subtle. Its trippy montage sequences are in particular so laughably on-the-nose (tidal waves crash as Christopher tips out a glass of water, restless animals flash by as the characters embrace their wild sides) that they pull Burger’s film toward a more lurid quasi-camp.
But think of Voyagers as High Life for himbos, or as the sort of pleasantly empty-headed Lord of the Flies riff that The CW might have greenlit back when The Hunger Games was still in theaters, and you’ll be in the ballpark of the polished sci-fi soap operatics that constitute Burger’s tone.
And at a certain point, it’s pleasurable enough to accept this and watch these young, beautiful actors heat up the sterile corridors. I wouldn’t call what’s happening between Sheridan and Depp “chemistry,” exactly. But, then again, easy flirtation wouldn’t feel right for characters only beginning to navigate long-suppressed desires. The performers nail the nervous curiosity that compels teens to paw at each other’s clothes, exploring foreign bodies with sincere need, uncertainty, and terror.
Unlike the repulsive Passengers — in which a man (Chris Pratt), accidentally awakened 30 years into a 120-year space voyage, non-consensually snatches a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) from hypersleep so she can spend her life with him — Voyagers is also careful to address the undercurrent of sexual threat at play in its story. Zac is characterized as the film’s antagonist first when he touches Sela in an invasive, menacing manner, laying claim to her. It is clear what fate will eventually befall her if Zac is allowed to take control.
An object of lust in the eyes of her male co-inhabitants, Sela navigates her peril with a stoic sense of resignation. Depp’s strongest work is still in David Michôd’s Shakespearean epic The King, where she navigates similar emotional territory with steel-edged grace. Still, she’s plenty effective here in a more underwritten role.
Whitehead — best known for a too-brief role in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk — is given the most to do out of the lead actors, portraying Zac’s escalation into villainy with enough flushed agitation to expose the anxieties and sense of betrayal beneath his character’s megalomania. And Sheridan, having a high-profile fall this year between Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter and George Clooney’s The Tender Bar, is less memorable as the kind of cardboard-cutout protagonist whose role is to manage the more tempestuous emotions of his castmates responsibly.
When Lionsgate released Voyagers in theaters this past April, the studio likely did so with the awareness that it was marching the film to its death. Theaters were closed in large swaths. A five-week social media campaign had failed to leverage its actors’ social-media followings into any substantial audience interest, and marketing efforts were otherwise modest.
But one wonders whether streaming wasn’t always part of that equation. Since arriving on HBO Max in early October, Voyagers has been prominently featured. With its attractive young cast and easy-to-grasp sci-fi concept, the film could be easily mistaken for a glossy television series pilot, and it would have undoubtedly found a bigger audience as a streaming exclusive.
Regardless, Voyagers can now be reassessed as an entertainingly slick, decently diverting hunk of YA sci-fi — albeit one that will soon feel, appropriately, like a footnote in the filmographies of its fast-growing stars.
Voyagers is now streaming on HBO Max.