Earth is dying; what are you going to do? Right, you’re going to put 30 teenagers on a starship headed for the nearest habitable planet, because why not put the future of mankind in the hands of people driven entirely by their hormones?
That’s the premise of “Voyagers,” a slick, watchable bit of YA sci-fi thriller nonsense arriving in theaters. The movie’s pretty much “Lord of the Flies in Space Plus Women,” so you can imagine how well that goes. There’s even an equivalent or two of the Golding novel’s Beast, one of them outside the ship and possibly mythical — and one inside and definitely human.
After some initial huggermugger on our over-polluted Earth, “Voyagers” lifts off into a space-station drama of rebellion and social entropy. Because the journey will take 86 years, the crew will be expected to have their own children (and grandchildren) once they’re ready, and then only by test tube — none of that nasty sex stuff, and, just to make sure, the kids get a daily dose of “vitamins” to repress their emotions and sex drives. “Decreased pleasure response?” says Zac (Fionn Whitehead) upon learning of the drug’s effects. “I want increased pleasure response!”
Zac and his friend Christopher (Tye Sheridan) push back by secretly stopping their doses, whereupon their true natures emerge: Christopher a thoughtful, pragmatic leader, and Zac a rape-y creep with a thing for Sela (Lily-Rose Depp), the chief communications officer. Eventually all the others stop their medication, too, and, what do you know, there are cliques and feuds and fights and shagging, just like in high school. There’s one adult on board — Colin Farrell as Richard, the mission leader and sensitive parental figure — and he’s about as effective as a youth pastor at a backwoods rave when the Molly kicks in.
“Voyagers” doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about itself, but neither do teenagers, generally speaking. The cast of mostly young unknowns does good work, although Whitehead has a tendency to chew the wallboard as Zac gains power and threatens Christopher’s dwindling band of followers. As Sela, Depp has a wide-eyed ambient presence that I’m not convinced could be categorized as acting but that does the job in these conditions. (She’s Johnny’s daughter and has done more forceful work elsewhere.)
The film stands as a slight comeback for writer-director Neil Burger, who had a singular debut with “Interview with the Assassin” in 2002 and went on to make two terrific genre entertainments, “The Illusionist” (2006) and “Limitless” (2011), before being diverted to the “Divergent” series — his first brush with the teen-dystopia genre. “Voyagers” shows that Burger can still move a story along with craft, pace, and skill, even if that story is, in the end, awfully predictable. Maybe it’s time he got back to the grown-ups’ table.
Written and directed by Neil Burger. Starring Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead. Boston theaters, suburbs. 108 minutes. PG-13 (violence, some strong sexuality, bloody images, a sexual assault, and some language)