Neil Burger’s sci-fi thriller “Voyagers” follows a team of hormonal, interplanetary teenage explorers as they slowly shed their civilized veneers and take a walk on the primal side.
The film unfolds almost entirely on a shuttle barreling through the deepest recesses of space, with its young crew tasked with a multi-generational mission to colonize a distant world. That premise has drawn comparisons to William Golding’s seminal 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies,” and the similarities between the book and film is one that Burger readily acknowledges and embraces. The film was conceived and shot before COVID, but the feelings of isolation and hopelessness that the characters experience and the paranoia that seizes hold of the crew is instantly recognizable for moviegoers who have spent the last year in semi-lockdown.
“Voyagers,” which stars Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead and (as the only adult in the room) Colin Farrell, opens on Friday. Burger spoke with Variety about working with his youthful cast and the futuristic adventure’s unexpected topicality.
What inspired “Voyagers”?
Stories come to you in so many different ways. In this case, two images popped into my head. One was of these young people sitting on the floor of a space ship, kind of zoned out and looking like they were disheveled and spent after a hunt. I had this other image of young people chasing someone down the very narrow corridor of a spaceship and catching and beating him to death. That intrigued me and caused me to tease out a larger scenario, one that tied into the idea of who are we as human beings? But first, I had to create a story to explain why there would be young people and only young people on a space craft.
This movie has been described as “Lord of the Flies” in space. Do you think that’s an accurate depiction?
It is. I love the book “Lord of the Flies” and I love the Peter Brook movie. Once I wrote the script, I wondered if what I was doing was what that story had done. Rather than trying to run away from it, I decided to lean into it.
But it does have differences. “Lord of the Flies” is very much about those boys reverting to male British behavior involving hunting and war. In our case, the crew of young men and women have no cultural references at all. When we strip away everything, what we’re looking at is human nature in a vacuum. They’re not reverting to any cultural stereotype. This allows us to think about ideas like, at our core, who are we? Are we naturally good or are we just animals looking to satisfy our appetites?
Where did you land in terms of our primal state?
I swing back and forth between pessimism and optimism. Having the movie coming out now makes it more relevant because of the year we’ve just been through in terms of the pandemic and our confinement and the political situation. We’ve seen how fear can be stoked and manipulated and used by people in power for their own ends. People can be pushed into paranoia and mob violence. Human history has mostly been a march towards an expansion of rights for people and of people trying to figure out a way to look out for others and alleviate human suffering. But there are also a lot of steps backwards in that constant attempt to improve things.
The movie was produced and written pre-COVID. Does the film land differently now?
It feels less like a cautionary tale and more like a commentary on what happened.
Did you do a lot of rehearsing with your cast?
I had 30 actors who were around the age of 20 on set. Their characters were a little like horses that had never been let out of the stall. If you take a horse that’s never been let out of the stall and you put in the field, it doesn’t start running. It just stands there because that’s all it knows. Its whole being has been reduced to dull nothingness. For these young people, I wanted them to have a sense that they were playing characters who had the slowest internal metronome possible. They had nothing to do on the ship — it runs itself. Their job was to eat and sleep and do some minor maintenance and, at a certain point, to procreate. We did group meditation where we tried to instill a stillness in them. There could be no nervous energy. That could not initially be part of this movie. Then they felt wonderful when they could erupt into this atmosphere of wild abandon
Your movies jump between a lot of different genres — from thrillers (“Limitless”) to character-based dramas (“The Upside”) to franchise films (“Divergent”). Is there any thematic tissue that connects your work?
All the movies I make seem very different from each other, but to me, there is a through line to them. Often they deal with questions about whether or not we can change who we are.