Voyagers explores complexities of coming of age in space

Tye Sheridan and Lily-Rose Depp star in Director Neil Burger’s science fiction film, Voyagers.

A crew of young people on a lifelong expedition to colonize a distant planet grow frustrated with their rigidly controlled existence and begin to rebel, putting the mission at risk, in Voyagers. Director Neil Burger’s (Limitless) new film is part classic space epic, part mystery and part dark psychological thriller. All those elements serve as a framework to explore questions of morality, freedom, power, and the fundamental core of human nature.

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

Burger was inspired by two vivid mental images. “The first was a group of young people sitting around inside a spaceship,” he said. “They were disheveled, zoned out, and looking like predators resting after a hunt. I don’t know where that image came from. But the second [image] implied a story: that same group of people chasing another crew member down the narrow corridor of the ship, pursuing him like an animal.”

Burger sensed there was a meaningful story there, and shaped his film around the ship as metaphor for our own world. He also researched the science of long-distance space exploration, and on human behavior, most notably the effects of prolonged confinement, aggression, tribalism, and violence. The result is Voyagers.

Director Neil Burger on set with Tye Sheridan, who plays Christopher.
Enlarge / Director Neil Burger on set with Tye Sheridan, who plays Christopher.

Per the official premise:

With the future of the human race at stake, a group of young men and women, bred for intelligence and obedience, embark on an expedition to colonize a distant planet. But when they uncover disturbing secrets about the mission, they defy their training and begin to explore their most primitive natures. As life on the ship descends into chaos, they’re consumed by fear, lust, and the insatiable hunger for power.

In the year 2063, scientists have discovered a new habitable exoplanet where the human race could flourish, as Earth is fast becoming uninhabitable. Richard Alling (Colin Farrell, Minority Report, Artemis Fowl) is charged with raising a crop of designer babies to serve as the crew aboard the spaceship, Humanitas. Their voyage will take 86 years, meaning it is their grandchildren who will ultimately reach their new planetary home. So the children are raised and trained in isolated conditions that mimic those they will experience on the Humanitas. Alling grows attached, and opts to join them on the mission, even though he won’t live to see its end.

Ten years in, the crew have matured into young adults, dutifully performing their assigned tasks and taking their daily “vitamin supplement,” dubbed the Blue. Then Christopher (Tye Sheridan, Ready Player One) discovers a strange toxin in the irrigation water aboard the ship, and realizes it’s coming from the crew’s urine. Specifically, it’s an ingredient in the Blue, designed to subdue the personality and decrease pleasurable response.

“They’re drugging us so we can be controlled,” Zac (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) says when Christopher tells him about the toxin. They resolve to go off the Blue, and eventually most other crew members follow suit, bringing all those raging hormones to the fore. The result is teen rebellion against Alling’s authority, growing distrust and paranoia, and of course, sexual experimentation and the desire for instant gratification. Could there be a mysterious alien life force lurking just outside the ship, further complicating matters?

Ars Technica: I’ve seen this film described repeatedly as Lord of the Flies in space. Do you agree with that description?

Neil Burger: It makes sense in a way. I love that book and I love the Peter Brook movie. Whenever there’s teenagers going wild or society breaking down, it becomes a Lord of the Flies reference. And I understand that. To me, it’s a little different. Lord of the Flies is about those boys enacting male behavior from English society and [notions of] masculinity: hunting and going to war and all that stuff. This movie’s a little different in the sense that this crew, they have no cultural reference. They have none of that background.

Voyagers is about a group of extraordinary young people waking up to sensual desires, to freedom, to power, and the thrilling euphoria that goes with that experience. The ship is a sterile environment where the young crew almost seem like laboratory rats. We watch to see how they behave under the conditions, how quickly they descend into savagery. [The film] is more about, who are we when you strip away all that cultural baggage? Who are we at our core? Are we good? Are we animals? Are we moral?

“Who are we at our core? Are we good? Are we animals? Are we moral?”

Ars Technica: There are a lot of scientific elements in this film: designer babies, exoplanets, interstellar travel. You clearly did  a lot of research on these and other story elements. What is your approach to weaving science into your storytelling?

Neil Burger: I love science. I’m really interested in all sorts of aspects of it, and learning as much as I can about all sorts of things: growing babies in a laboratory, or how we’re able to sense whether a distant planet has certain chemicals, if there’s water on them. I love exploring all of that. I wanted to make [the film’s setting] as real as possible. The themes about human nature are important and real, so I wanted the setting and the ship and everything around it to be as real as possible as well. The spacecraft is purely utilitarian and functional and based on actual proposals within NASA and other organizations studying space travel outside our solar system.

Ars Technica:  There’s a nature versus nurture question, I think, that comes up because, as you say, these young people have no cultural context. They were genetically designed to be the ideal crew. But sometimes it’s not enough to just design them that way, as we see with the character of Zac. There are other influences that shape who we are.

Neil Burger: For me, the movie is about human nature in a vacuum. [The crew members] have no real models for behavior, and little to do on the ship except eat, work, and sleep. In a way they are pure humans—all nature, not nurture, I always thought of them as horses that have never been let out of the stall. As I said, when you strip away everything; who are we at our core? And is that even a real thing?

Perhaps for the mission planners in this movie, that’s what they were looking for. But there’s always small things that do influence us. Is there something inside Zac, for example, that makes him tend toward a certain kind of response? I would argue that he’s smart enough, that he senses that he’s being controlled. So when he gets a little taste of his own control or power, he’s just never going back. It [feels] reasonable, what he’s doing—even though it isn’t.

Ars Technica: Zac’s actions demonstrate the power of manipulating with misinformation. That resonates particularly strongly these days for obvious reasons. But it’s fairly universal in human beings: even though we love our freedom, we are very vulnerable to that kind of manipulation.

Neil Burger: I think we’re understanding that more and more. When I wrote the screenplay, it was years ago, and I was obviously aware of that happening in our society and other societies. I was writing it as a cautionary tale. In the last few months it’s become something completely different. Fear is a big theme, and a major issue in the movie: how a leader uses it to manipulate his followers and maybe even drive them to mob violence. It all raises questions about how a society can function—about selfishness and self-sacrifice. That’s the foundation of the conflict.

Ars Technica: You’ve said that the ship is a metaphor for our world: humans hurtling through space on Earth, not sure why we’re here or where we’re going. And somehow we have to find meaning in that. We see the best and worst of human nature on display in the film as it builds up to a big central question: is humanity worth saving? 

Neil Burger: I think it is worth saving. And I think that we continue as a species to try to move things to a better place. It’s tough and there’s setbacks, but I think that the predominant thrust is to try to alleviate suffering in our fellow humans. It’s not always easy.

Voyagers is now playing in select theaters.

Listing image by Lionsgate