Every era gets the youth sci-fi action movie it deserves. Twenty-five years ago, Paul Verhoeven made “Starship Troopers” (1997), and whatever you thought of that self-consciously over-the-top high-cheese parable of pinup actors battling giant bugs, there’s no denying it packed a wallop that was very late ’90s — a revel in teen-idol decadence fused with rollicking tech-boom excess.
Neil Burger, the writer-director of “Voyagers,” is no Paul Verhoeven, but he’s a skilled commercial filmmaker (he made the entertaining slight-of-hand mystery “The Illusionist,” the snazzy Bradley Cooper-on-smart-drugs thriller “Limitless,” and the first “Divergent” film, which I thought was superior to any of the “Hunger Games” movies). In “Voyagers,” he places a bunch of pretty young actors aboard a spaceship, where they go on a mission to save the human race by journeying to a distant planet. (Earth, as a result of overbaked climate issues, is heading toward oblivion.) A couple of the crew members discover that the blue liquid they all have to drink each day contains a drug that keeps them docile by reigning in their animal drives: toward sex, violence, or disobeying orders. So they decide to stop taking it.
That sounds like the recipe for a movie you could imagine Verhoeven directing — a hyper-violent blowout crossed with “Party in Space.” But this isn’t the late ’90s, and “Voyagers” very much channels its time. Watching it, you can just about touch the spirit of COVID, of lockdown, of psychopharmacological control, of erotic repression, and — when the story kicks in — of the fight against sociopathic fascism.
Once the crew members liberate themselves from their pacifying drug, the movie becomes “Lord of the Flies” as a which-side-are-you-on? showdown in space. “Voyagers” isn’t badly made, and a handful of the actors have some flair, yet there’s something rote, schematic, and a bit monotonous about it. With everyone in the cast wearing black T-shirts, the movie suggests Ridley Scott shooting the world’s most expensive and visionary Gap commercial. “Voyagers” is a dutiful thriller about the beast within, but there’s not a lot of surprise to it. Even when the characters let themselves go, the drama remains in lockdown.
There’s one aspect of the film I did find totally, unintentionally loopy, and that’s the premise. It seems it’s going to take the spaceship 86 years to reach its destination: a planet with enough water and oxygen to allow the human race to replant itself. Epic space journeys are par for the course in sci-fi, but this one doesn’t depend on cryogenic hibernation to get its characters through. Rather, they’ve been raised, from embryos, to be astronauts on this journey, so they won’t know the pleasures of earth they’re leaving behind. Once they’re onboard, they’ll bear children at the age of 24 (through in vitro fertilization), and those children will have children, so the colonizers of the new planet will be our heroes’ grandchildren. Maybe it’s just me, but this struck me as a weirdly arduous, borderline unworkable scheme — three generations, a veritable century of life, all unfolding on one sterile spaceship.
The crew’s onboard chaperone is Richard (Colin Farrell), who was their overseer when they were being raised as parentless children in an artificial environment. All they’ve known is schooling and training, under Richard’s benign protection. Farrell makes the character a dry, vulnerable guru with a sentimental streak. He’s got a case full of test tubes, each of which contains a different substance from earth (sage, pine needles) with its own Proustian fragrance. For a while, “Voyagers” might almost be a movie about a spaceship full of automatons getting in touch with their human side. The ship has been elegantly visualized (by production designer Scott Chambliss), with a series of endless white corridors for lots of hurtling camera movement. Within those spaces, the characters have a workout room that looks like a Peloton, a cafeteria that could be a dystopian college dorm, and they do bro-on-bro wrestling and tend the food supply growing in a greenhouse.
It’s getting off the drug that brings the crew alive, and the actors too. Tye Sheridan plays Chris, the team leader, with a Brando/Tom Hardy pout of nobility that registers, especially when he finds himself on the wrong side of a popularity contest. And Fionn Whitehead, as his friend and then rival Zac, gives the film a haughty jolt of corruption. It’s Chris who says, “We’re just going to die in the end, so why can’t we do what we want?” But it’s Zac who takes that emotion and pumps it up into an ideology. He also does something that, I suspect, was meant in the script to be Trumpian: He exploits the idea that a killer alien has stowed itself aboard ship, using the threat to amass his comrades into a cult. Lily-Rose Depp, as the circumspect and resourceful Sela, shows more gumption than she has before.
“Voyagers” hums along, but without much excitement. There are too many tropes you’ve seen before, like a spacewalk shot through with an undercurrent of doom. The climax features long white plastic guns that look like they were printed out from a computer, and the fight that transpires is conventional in the extreme. For a while, it seems as if “Voyagers” might be a parable of life in the age of chemical mood stabilizers, and in the abstract it is, but somehow that aspect of the story doesn’t come to much. The movie is on the side of people feeling their inner drives but also making their own choices and doing the right thing. Not much to quarrel with there, but not much to provoke you either.