All things considered, outer space is not the best place to hit puberty.
A mission to save the human race goes very awry when its young-adult crew comes out of their collective state of arrested development in writer/director Neil Burger’s sci-fi thriller “Voyagers” (★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday).
The movie throws in a little murder mystery and an alien-invasion angle with its coming-of-age themes, features a host of up-and-coming stars (including Johnny Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose Depp), and rockets to some interesting places when it comes to science and what makes us us. What undermines all that, however, is when the film shifts into being an intergalactic “Lord of the Flies” as the kids turn on each other and go tribal.
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In the year 2063, Earth is a no-go for civilization any longer and a distant planet is seen as a place to colonize and restart humanity. The major caveat: a mission to get there would take 86 years. A crew of 30 is born and bred in an isolated laboratory, never seeing the outside world, to prepare to get launched into space so their grandchildren will one day make it to this planet. Richard (Colin Farrell), the scientist who’s raised theyouthful crew, decides he wants to also get in the spaceship so he can continue to protect them, knowing full well it’s a one-way trip.
Now in their 20s, the astronauts live their days comfortably numb until one of them, Christopher (Tye Sheridan), discovers why: The “medication” they’ve long been taking, a blue liquid called “The Blue,” inhibits their emotions like fear and anger and keeps them docile. (It also suppresses their sex drive, as they need to stay abstinent until just the right time to keep the whole humanity-saving mission on track.) Christopher shows this discovery to his friend Zac (Fionn Whitehead), and they decide to stop taking The Blue.
With his hormones no longer in check, Christopher suddenly has the hots for medical officer Sela (Depp) but keeps it fairly cool. Hotheaded Zac doesn’t, as he develops a violent rebellious streak, creates random fight clubs and becomes a poster boy for toxic masculinity. When something bad happens to Richard and Christopher and Sela try to maintain a sense of order on the ship, Zac sees a chance to grab power when it appears something dangerous made its way into their confined quarters.
Aside from the fact that “Voyagers” goes from zero to spring break way too quickly after the kids eschew the Blue – food raids and public sex acts are part of the new cosmic hedonism – Burger raises thought-provoking moral and ethical quandaries in his narrative.
Richard freely chose a path where he’d never see Earth again, but these decisions were made for the bioengineered astronauts: Wouldn’t you be irked, too, if you were tossed on a spaceship you’ll never leave, had your natural impulses dulled and maybe your kids’ kids will make it to safety if everything goes perfectly? And the thought of 30 people all having to deal with a major hormonal shift at the same time is pretty much the ultimate season of “The Real World.”
The thinking man’s speculative sci-fi gets thrown out airlock to a degree when “Voyagers” shifts to more of a formulaic action thriller, as Christopher and Sela have to stay alive when Zac’s gang takes over the ship. As the main villain, however, Whitehead strikes a great balance between charming and extremely punchable. The cast all around is pretty good: Depp has solid chemistry with Farrell for some important emotionally grounding scenes, and there’s some talented folks you might recognize, including Isaac Hempstead Wright (“Game of Thrones”), Viveik Kalra (“Blinded by the Light”) and Quintessa Swindell (“Euphoria”).
Even with ace performers and heady thoughts, “Voyagers” is a clever trip that, like its crew, unfortunately goes primal at the wrong time.