Review: ‘The Tender Bar,’ starring Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Christopher Lloyd and Lily Rabe

December 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan in “The Tender Bar” (Photo by Claire Folger/Amazon Content Services)

“The Tender Bar”

Directed by George Clooney

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1972 to the mid-1980s, in Manhasset, New York; New Haven, Connecticut; and New York City, the dramatic film “The Tender Bar” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, a boy raised by his single mother in a working-class household is influenced by her brother to take risks in life, as the boy grows up and goes on to attend Yale University and work as a journalist for The New York Times.

Culture Audience: “The Tender Bar” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ben Affleck, director George Clooney (who does not appear in the movie) and predictable coming-of-age stories.

Lily Rabe and Daniel Ranieri in “The Tender Bar” (Photo by Claire Folger/Amazon Content Services)

Even though Ben Affleck gets top billing in the dramatic film “The Tender Bar,” he’s not in the movie as much the “The Tender Bar” trailers and other marketing materials would leave audiences to believe. And the movie isn’t as compelling as it first seems. Although the acting in “The Tender Bar” is very good, ultimately the direction by George Clooney and screenwriting by William Monaghan are underwhelming, considering that Clooney and Monaghan are both Oscar-winning filmmakers. There’s a very “been there, done that” tone to this coming-of-age story that retreads a lot of familiar territory about young men who are aspiring writers.

“The Tender Bar” is based on J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir of the same name. It’s yet another story about someone from suburban, working-class roots who dreams of moving to a big city to achieve fame and possibly fortune in a chosen profession. In a movie like this, the eager young person predictably has a mentor who is a tough taskmaster or a mentor who is a rule-breaking free spirit. The mentor in the “The Tender Bar” is the latter stereotype.

A major problem with the movie version of “The Tender Bar” is that there are big gaps in the life that is presented of the movie’s protagonist, whose name is J.R. McGuire. A running “joke” in the movie is that J.R. keeps having to answer this question: “What does ‘J.R.’ stand for?” It’s a question he can’t really answer because, as far as he knows, J.R. is his first name on his birth certificate. In the movie, J.R. is depicted as two very different personalities (as a child and as a young adult) that are such a contrast to each other, it throws the movie off-balance, and the movie never really recovers from it.

In the first third of the movie, it’s 1972, and J.R. is a 9-year-old boy (played by Daniel Ranieri), who has moved with his single mother (played by Lily Rabe) back into her parents’ cramped house in Manhasset, New York. J.R.’s mother is having financial problems and can’t afford to live anywhere else. J.R.’s mother is embarrassed that she’s had to move back in with her parents (played by Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James), who all do not have names in the movie.

J.R.’s father abandoned J.R.’s mother and J.R. when J.R. was too young to remember him. This deadbeat dad is a radio DJ named Johnny Michaels (played by Max Martini), who has the on-air nickname The Voice. Even though Johnny still lives in the area, he hasn’t been in J.R.’s life, and J.R.’s mother wants to keep it that way. However, J.R. still ardently listens to his father on the radio, which is J.R.’s way of trying to get to know his father. In the movie, J.R.’s childhood is depicted from when he was 9 to about 11 years old.

J.R. is a bubbly and inquisitive child who loves to read. From a child’s perspective, he doesn’t see the move to his grandparents’ home as depressing. Just the opposite: J.R. meets a lot of relatives (aunts, uncles and cousins), and he’s happy to feel like he’s part of this big family. An unseen, middle-aged adult J.R. (voiced by Ron Livingston) says in hindsight voiceover narration how he felt being around so many family members: “I loved it.”

J.R.’s mother, who obviously wanted to move away from her family, isn’t happy about this change in her living situation. She thinks of herself as a “failure” for having to move back in with her parents. J.R.’s mother tries to hide her sadness from J.R, but he’s too smart not to notice.

There are underlying reasons why she was so reluctant to move back in with her parents, but they are only alluded to in the movie. She hints at those reasons when she tells J.R. about her curmudgeonly father: “Grandpa resents taking care of the family.” As for J.R.’s father, she comments: “Your father has never taken care of anyone at all.”

There are a few tender family moments as J.R.’s mother and her father take some steps in mending their fractured relationship. J.R. and his grandfather also have some moments together where they strengthen their family bond. However, the movie wants to focus on another adult member of the family to be the main catalyst for what happens to J.R.

One of the family members J.R. meets during this stressful time in his mother’s life is her older brother Charlie (played by Affleck), a bachelor who owns a local pub called Dickens. Charlie is not very educated, but he knows a lot about hard knocks in life, and he ends up being J.R.’s mentor/confidant. As an adult J.R. says in a narration voiceover: “When you’re 11 years old, you want [someone like] an Uncle Charlie.”

Meanwhile, J.R.’s father Johnny tries to get to know J.R. by promising to take him to a baseball game. But those plans go awry when J.R.’s mother has Johnny arrested for non-payment of child support while Johnny is on the air at his radio job. After getting out on bail, Johnny flees the state and threatens to kill J.R.’s mother during a menacing phone call. It’s the first sign that Johnny has a very mean streak and a violent mentality.

During this turmoil, Charlie becomes closer to J.R. and becomes almost like a father figure to him. The name of the Dickens bar is inspired by author Charles Dickens, so the bar is decorated with books on shelves, just like a library. Even though he’s underage, J.R. is allowed inside the bar. He’s so fascinated with the books, J.R. asks Charlie if he can read them. Charlie says yes. And an adult J.R. says in a narrator voiceover, “In that moment, I wanted to be a writer.”

J.R.’s mother would prefer that J.R. become a lawyer. She also drills into him that she really wants J.R. to graduate from Yale University or Harvard University. The family can’t afford to pay for tuition to an elite university, so J.R. hopes to get an academic scholarship. “The Tender Bar” doesn’t bother to show J.R. doing a lot of studying because the point of the movie is that J.R. got his real childhood education about life from his uncle Charlie.

“The Tender Bar” has a meandering quality to it where nothing particularly interesting happens during Charlie’s “mentorship” of J.R. As a child, J.R. tags along with hard-drinking Charlie and some of his party pals, who have nicknames like Bobo (played by Michael Braun) and Chief (played by Max Casella), where the adults get up to mostly harmless drunken mischief. Charlie also teaches J.R. how to drive long before J.R. is legally able to do so.

Charlie, who’s also a bartender at Dickens, lets J.R. watch Charlie do his job, where J.R. observes how adults act in a bar. Charlie doesn’t treat J.R. like a silly kid who’s a nuisance but as a person who needs guidance on some of life’s realities. At one point, Johnny comes back into the picture, and he has a violent confrontation with Charlie.

The rest of the movie then abruptly switches to J.R.’s life when he was in his late teens and early 20s. It’s here where “The Tender Bar” really starts to drag. Gone is the cheerful tyke who radiated positive energy and openness. The young adult J.R. (played by Tye Sheridan) is mopey, angsty, and has lost a lot of his charming curiosity about life.

This big change in J.R.’s personality is never explained. It’s more than just the normal coming-of-age growing pains. A lot of it has to do with the casting of Sheridan as the young adult J.R., because Sheridan tends to play brooding characters. That’s not to say that J.R. should be an eternally upbeat character, but the zest for life that he had as a child seems to have dwindled by the time the movie gets to J.R.’s life in his late teens and early 20s.

J.R. is only sure about one thing in his life: He wants to be a writer. Apparently, he thinks the only way to be a good writer is to be moody and miserable. It’s not really spoiler information to reveal that J.R. gets into Yale University, because about one-third of the movie (in the middle of the film) is about his time at Yale, where he ends up graduating in 1986. During his freshman year at Yale, J.R. has two roommates—Wesley (played by Rhenzy Feliz) and Jimmy (played by Ivan Leung)—who are bland characters that don’t add much to the story.

J.R. becomes immediately smitten with another Yale student named Sydney Lawson (played by Briana Middleton), who plays mind games with him during their entire on-again/off-again relationship. J.R. falls in love with Sydney, who treats J.R. as a “side piece,” because she always has a more serious, committed relationship with another boyfriend the entire time that she and J.R. are seeing each other. The movie wastes a lot of time on J.R. and Sydney’s topsy-turvy relationship, which ends up exactly how you think it’s going to end up.

There’s an intentionally awkward sequence where Sydney invites J.R. to meet her well-to-do and highly educated parents at the Lawson family home. (Mark Boyett plays Sydney’s father, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine plays Sydney’s mother, who don’t have first names in the movie.) The only purpose of this section of the movie is to show that J.R. feels self-conscious about his working-class background and that Sydney used this meeting as a test to see if J.R. could really fit into her world. It’s a world where people have a tendency to look down on working-class people from single-parent households.

Where exactly is Charlie during all of this drama in J.R.’s love life? Charlie only comes back into the picture whenever J.R. goes back to Manhasset to visit. And because Charlie is not an intellectual type who can skillfully guide J.R. on his writing ambitions, Charlie’s mentorship seems to be less impactful on J.R. as an adult, compared to when J.R. was a child. During the entire story, Charlie seems incapable of having a loving and committed relationship that lasts, so he’s not exactly the best person to give advice to J.R. about J.R.’s love life.

As much as Sydney manipulates J.R. by toying with his heart, the one sincerely good influence that she has on J.R. is that Sydney is the one (not Charlie) who encourages J.R. to apply for a job at The New York Times. J.R. is a talented writer, but he’s often plagued by self-doubt over his abilities. The rest of the movie is a bit of a slog in showing J.R.’s experience as a junior-level writer at The New York Times, while he still struggles with his love for Sydney.

“The Tender Bar” had potential to be a lot more engaging if it didn’t take up so much time on J.R.’s repetitive and predictable love affair with Sydney, the person who preoccupies most of his thoughts during his young-adult life that’s shown in the movie. The relationship between J.R. and his uncle Charlie, which is being marketed as the heart of “The Tender Bar,” is too often sidelined by showing what happens when J.R. goes to Yale and gets caught up in a bad romance.

It’s also a shaky premise for this movie to even put Charlie up on a “role model” pedestal in the first place, because he certainly doesn’t emotionally mature much during the approximately 14 or 15 years that this movie takes place. When J.R. moves away to go to Yale, Charlie is a drunk who acts like he’s a party guy in his 20s. When J.R. goes back to visit, middle-aged Charlie still has essentially the same lifestyle and mindset. If Charlie has any talent at anything, the movie never reveals what it is.

And that leaves audiences wondering, “What’s so great about Charlie?” It’s nice that Charlie provided emotional support for J.R. when J.R. needed a father figure as a kid. But by the time the movie ends, it’s obvious that between Charlie and J.R., only one of them has become a “grown-up” by gaining true wisdom from life experiences and by turning a talent into a career.

Amazon Studios released “The Tender Bar” in select U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021, with a wider release on December 22, 2021. Prime Video will premiere “The Tender Bar” on January 7, 2022.

Review: ‘The Card Counter,’ starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe

September 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish in “The Card Counter” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The Card Counter”

Directed by Paul Schrader

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., as well as in Iraq in flashback scenes, the dramatic film “The Card Counter” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos, Arabs and African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An ex-con, who has a dark past as a U.S. military officer, is now a gambling addict facing a moral dilemma on whether or not to get involved in a deadly revenge plot. 

Culture Audience: “The Card Counter” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in neo-noir dramas that explore issues of military PTSD and the fallout of extreme actions made in the name of anti-terrorism.

Oscar Isaac and Tye Sheridan in “The Card Counter” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“The Card Counter” (written and directed by Paul Schrader) is a raw and unflinching portrait of a man tortured by his past and using his gambling addiction as a way to cope. On a wider level, this neo-noir film is a scathing view of the “war on terror” and abuse of power. Oscar Isaac gives an absolutely gripping and fascinating performance as a protagonist struggling to find a sense of morality in a world where many people are rewarded for crimes and punished for trying to do the right thing.

It would be an understatement to say that William Tell (played by Isaac) is feeling spiritually and emotionally bankrupt. Now in his 40s, William spent 10 years imprisoned as a dishonorably discharged ex-military officer in the U.S. federal penitentiary Leavenworth in Leavenworth, Kansas. It’s eventually revealed in the movie’s several flashback scenes why William was imprisoned.

The main thing that viewers find out in the beginning of the movie, which has constant voiceover narration by William, is that he learned to count cards in prison. After he got out of prison, he became a professional gambler (mostly in poker and blackjack), who counts cards to have an advantage in the games. It’s a risky activity that could get him banned from casinos, but so far William hasn’t been caught.

The name William Tell is most associated with the early 14th century Swiss folk hero William Tell, who was a rebel and an expert marksman. It should come as no surprise that the gambler named William Tell in “The Card Counter” is using a partial alias. The William character in this movie changed his last name to Tell after he got out of prison. His real last name is also eventually revealed.

In “The Card Counter,” William is a never-married bachelor with no children and no family members who are in his life. William is currently based in New Jersey, where he spends more time in Atlantic City casinos than he does at home. It’s made apparent very early on in the movie that William is a gambling addict. And, just like most addicts, he uses his addiction as a way to deal with past traumas.

It’s mentioned several times in the movie that William’s past traumas have given him intimacy issues. He’s a loner who’s been celibate by choice for several years. He also has severe nightmares about things that happened in his past when he was a private first-class special ops solider during the Iraq War.

The flashback scenes of what William did as a solider and as a military police officer might be too difficult to watch for viewers who are very sensitive or squeamish. The production notes for “The Card Counter” have a very accurate description of how these disturbing flashback scenes were filmed: writer/director Schrader “wanted the nightmarish scenes to feel like immersive virtual reality—an effect in the movie that feels like descending first-hand into a Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape. [“The Card Counter” cinematographer Alexander] Dynan employed VR technology to present a flattened, equirectangular version of the standard image.”

One day, while William is hanging out at an Atlantic City hotel/casino, he notices that there’s an industry convention called Global Security Conference that’s taking place at the hotel. One of the keynote speakers is John Gordo (played by Willem Dafoe), a retired U.S. Army major, who now owns a private and lucrative security consulting company that has the U.S. government as its biggest client. When William finds out that John is in the same building, it triggers William into a cascade of negative emotions that he tries to hide. However, William’s curiosity gets the best of him to see John’s speech.

There’s someone else who isn’t happy about John being a lauded speaker at this convention. Unbeknownst to William, there’s someone in the audience during John’s speech who has noticed that William is there and will soon seek out William for a face-to-face meeting. During his speech, John promotes a new product from his company called STABL, which is facial recognition software that’s supposed to be able to detect truth-telling. This technology is supposedly designed to help during interrogations.

After the speech, the person who observed William from afar finds William and introduces himself. His name is Cirk (pronounced “Kirk”) Balfort, a guy in his mid-20s whose deceased father had something in common with William, besides being dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military. While having drinks together at the casino, Cirk tells William how the troubles of Cirk’s father have affected Cirk. After his father’s disgraced military career, his father became an oxycodone addict who regularly abused Cirk and Cirk’s mother. His father eventually committed suicide.

Cirk believes that his father’s downward spiral was the direct result of something that John did. For reasons that are later revealed in the movie, Cirk also believes that William has a grudge against John, so Cirk proposes that he and William join forces to torture and murder John. William immediately says no to this proposition because he doesn’t want to do anything that would put him at risk of going back to prison.

However. William is emotionally touched by Cirk, who seems aimless and depressed about his life and in need of a father figure. Cirk makes it clear that he isn’t the type of person to want to go to college or work in a boring office job. And so, William offers Cirk an opportunity to let William mentor Cirk on how to be a professional gambler who goes on tour, with William paying all of Cirk’s expenses for this training.

How is William going to pay for this road trip? It just so happens that within the same 24-hour period of meeting Cirk, William met a gambling agent named La Linda (played by Tiffany Haddish), who works with a network of mysterious and wealthy people who like to invest in professional gamblers and get a cut of the winnings. Her job is to find talented gamblers to sign with her as their agent, so she can pass on some of the prize money to these rich investors, who fund the gambling tours for her clients.

La Linda has been observing William for a while and admires his talent. And when she approaches him to become his agent, it’s in a flirtatious but business-minded manner. At first, William turns down her offer to become his agent because he prefers to work alone. However, after William gets the idea to mentor Cirk, he tells La Linda that he’ll take her up on her offer because he needs the money for this mentoring road trip. (Although “The Card Counter” is supposed to take place in various states, the movie was actually filmed in Mississippi, mostly in Gulfport and Biloxi.)

Much of “The Card Counter” is about this road trip and the friendship that forms between William and Cirk. Eventually, William is hired to enter a major poker tournament. Viewers see that when William checks into a hotel room, he has a habit of covering all of the furniture with bedsheets and using gloves. It’s as if he’s paranoid about leaving any fingerprints and DNA behind in these hotel rooms. Is he trying to hide something or hide from someone?

Even though Cirk and William learn to trust each other, Cirk can’t let go of the idea of murdering John. Cirk repeatedly brings it up, as a way of trying to wear down William to get him to agree. It’s eventually shown if William caves in or not to Cirk’s persistence.

William’s life is also altered when he becomes closer to La Linda. Their sexual tension with each other is evident in their first meeting, but they keep things strictly professional during their first several meetings. One of the more visually stunning scenes in “The Card Counter” is when William and La Linda go on a platonic date to what looks like the Gulfport Harbor Lights Winter Festival, which is known for its elaborate lights displays that evoke a magical aura. It’s here that La Linda and William hold hands for the first time

Whether or not William and La Linda become lovers is revealed in the movie’s trailer, which unfortunately gives away a lot of moments that should be surprises to viewers. In other words, it’s best not to watch the trailer before seeing this movie. “The Card Counter” has a tone and pacing that are very reminiscent of noir films from the 1940s and 1950s, especially in William’s voiceover narrations, which are often taken from the journals that he meticulously keeps.

Some of the movie’s dialogue that doesn’t involve cursing sounds very much like it’s from the Golden Age of Hollywood, especially in the flirtatious banter between William and La Linda. That’s not the only old-fashioned aspect of the film. As well-crafted as the movie is overall, “The Card Counter” still perpetuates outdated stereotypes that movies like this often have: Only one woman has a significant speaking role in the film. And the main purpose of the woman is ultimately to be the love interest of the male protagonist. All the other women in the movie are essentially background characters or just have a few lines.

Haddish usually plays loud-mouthed, vulgar and unsophisticated characters in raunchy comedies, but with “The Card Counter,” she attempts to break out of that typecasting by portraying someone who is intelligent and is a combination of being upwardly mobile while still being street-smart. However, Haddish still seems a bit uncomfortable playing this type of serious character. It’s not a bad performance, but it’s not as believable as Isaac’s performance.

La Linda is someone who is from East St. Louis and is trying to make a better life for herself while becoming an empathetic friend to William. Unfortunately, Schrader did not develop La Linda’s character enough for her to have a backstory. The closest that viewers will find out about Linda’s past is that she drops several hints to William that she’s used to dating men with prison records. When they first meet, she correctly guesses that William spent time in prison. La Linda also tells William that she doesn’t care about anything bad that he did in his past.

However, William cares a lot about what he’s done in his past because he’s wracked with guilt over it. As much as he’s trying to move on to his new life as a professional gambler, he’s still haunted by his past sins. He reaches a point where he has to decide if participating in an act of revenge will bring him some relief. His fatherly relationship with Cirk is William’s way of trying to get some kind of redemption within himself.

Sheridan is perfectly fine but not outstanding in his role as the emotionally damaged Cirk, who’s hell-bent on carrying out a vendetta. Because the movie is told from William’s perspective, viewers aren’t really privy to a lot of Cirk’s thoughts, except his revenge plan. Cirk also has lingering resentment toward his mother, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in quite some time because Cirk thinks his mother should’ve protected him more from Cirk’s abusive father. It’s easy to see how William would want to take Cirk under his wing, because he’s trying to prevent Cirk from experiencing the same regrets that plague William.

Although the “The Card Counter” has several scenes of William gambling, this movie isn’t about who wins or how much the prize money is in these casino games or tournaments. What the movie shows so well is that William has learned the hard way that people’s souls and self-respect can be destroyed not just by abusers but by people doing damage to themselves. In that sense, William is taking the biggest gamble of his life in facing his fears and regrets, because he doesn’t quite know if he should bet on forgiving himself.

Focus Features will release “The Card Counter” in U.S. cinemas on September 10, 2021.

Review: ‘Voyagers,’ starring Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead and Colin Farrell

April 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lily-Rose Depp and Tye Sheridan in “Voyagers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Voyagers”

Directed by Neil Burger

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in a spaceship from Earth, the sci-fi drama “Voyagers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) who portray American scientists and crew members involved in exploring a new planet where human beings can possibly live.

Culture Clash: A power struggle erupts among the crew members, and it turns deadly.

Culture Audience: “Voyagers” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching derivative sci-fi movies that borrow heavily from dystopian young-adult novels with “survival of the fittest” themes.

Quintessa Swindell, Reda Elazouar, Fionn Whitehead, Archie Madekwe and Lou Llobel in “Voyagers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Voyagers” is a disappointing space travel movie that’s the equivalent of being stuck on a pointless road trip with bickering 20-somethings from a bad soap opera. “Voyagers” is not an adventure story about exploring a new planet. The movie is really about a group of young people isolated on a spaceship in a bland ripoff of “Lord of the Flies.” The cast members’ overall serviceable performances can’t quite save “Voyagers” from the movie’s annoying “bait and switch” in its story, which has too many plot holes and not enough originality for it to be a truly enjoyable film.

Written and directed by Neil Burger, “Voyagers” begins with a captioned intro that explains why this space voyage is taking place: “As the Earth grows hotter, and drought and disease ravage the population, scientists look for a new planet—one that can support human life. In 2063, they find it. The human voyage to the planet will take 86 years.” Although the movie never says which government is spearheading this voyage, viewers can assume it’s the United States because all of the people involved have American accents.

Leading this experimental voyage is a scientist named Richard (played by Colin Farrell), who tells people in a meeting that the plan is to have 30 qualified crew members—all who were born and bred to live on a spaceship. These crew members (who were born from artificial insemination) will have a pre-determined number of children and grandchildren during this 86-year journey in outer space. During this time, these voyagers and their descendants are supposed to learn enough about this new planet to return to Earth and bring back this knowledge so that other humans from Earth can possibly start relocating to this new planet.

From the start, there are some major problems with the story. Richard is the only person who’s shown interacting with and educating the children who were selected to be born and and bred for this program. He has been involved in raising them since birth. The movie should have had more scientists and government officials involved in this training. Just because “Voyagers” is a low-budget independent film is no excuse for this lack of credibility. If you can afford Colin Farrell to be in your movie, you can afford to hire some more cast members to portray the people training the children.

The children, who are in the same age group, are first seen as 4-year-olds in a sterile spaceship simulation environment where they are solving puzzles on computers. Richard interacts with them while wearing a hazmat suit. He is kind and patient with the kids, who have deliberately been raised indoors their entire life. The reason for always keeping the children indoors is because if the kids knew what it was like to be outdoors on Earth, it could have negative effects on their mental health while they’re in outer space if they knew what they were missing on Earth.

There’s a scene early in the movie that completely contradicts what happens later in the story. During a teaching session, all of the kids are happy to see Richard when he enters the room. Most of the kids run up to him and hug him, and he hugs them back. But later in the story, when the children begin the voyage when they’re 24 years old, they act as if they’ve never expressed public displays of affection before. It doesn’t ring true at all, but it’s the basis for a huge turning point in the movie.

Richard, who is a bachelor with no kids of his own, has grown attached to these children. He’s so attached that he wants to go with them on this voyage. His supervisor Marianne Sancar (played by Veronica Falcón) is very reluctant to allow it. However, Richard tells her that he really won’t miss living on Earth at all. And the next thing you know, Richard is the only adult over the age of 30 who’s with the crew members who were bred for this voyage. Once Richard and the crew members live on the spaceship, he no longer has to wear a hazmat suit when he’s around them.

Here’s another problematic part of the story: No government would realistically allow a bunch of 24-year-olds who don’t have any life experience outside of a spaceship environment to be on their own to explore a new planet. It’s what would have happened if Richard had not insisted on going on this voyage too. Any scientific exploration like this one would require people who would know what it’s like to live on Earth (indoors and outdoors), to make informed decisions on whether or not a new planet could be inhabitable by human beings whose biology was wired to live on Earth through centuries of evolution. It’s basic science for any scientific exploration to have that comparison point.

The “bait” part of “Voyagers” starts off misleading viewers into thinking that these young people, who’ve been trained specifically to explore this new planet, will get to do this exploring in the movie. But no, here comes the “switch” part of the movie: “Voyagers” has absolutely zero screen time of these so-called explorers doing any exploring. It’s not really spoiler information to reveal this fact about “Voyagers.” It’s a fair warning to viewers that this so-called “new planet” is never seen in the movie. Instead, “Voyagers” is essentially a predictable and often-dull soap opera on a spaceship.

Out of the 30 young people who are the crew members, three are the main focus of the story. It’s telegraphed early on that these three are the main characters, in a scene with the future voyagers as 4-year-olds. They are the only three characters Richard is shown tucking into bed and calling them by their names when he says good night to them.

The three main characters at 24 years old are:

  • Christopher (played by Tye Sheridan), who is even-tempered and analytical.
  • Sela (played by Lily-Rose Depp), who is the group’s assertive and intelligent chief medical officer.
  • Zac (played by Fionn Whitehead), who is the group’s rebellious chief surveillance officer.

And because “Voyagers” is really a soap opera in space, you know what that means: love triangle. There are some other crew members whose personalities are given some notable screen time. They include:

  • Kai (played by Archie Madekwe), a mischief maker who likes breaking the rules.
  • Julie (played by Quintessa Swindell), a flirtatious engineer who has a mutual attraction to Kai.
  • Peter (played by Viveik Kalra), who becomes a rival to Kai for Julie’s affections.
  • Phoebe (played by Chanté Adams), who is the group member most likely to stick to the rules and protocol.
  • Edward (played by Isaac Hempstead Wright), a nerdy control room officer who’s the most “book smart” one in the group.
  • Anda (played by Madison Hu), a level-headed type who is good at negotiating.

All of the crew members except Richard are given a blue liquid called (unimaginatively) The Blue as part of their dining routine. Christopher finds out through some computer hacking that The Blue is really a drug that dulls human senses. It contains a toxin called T56j, which makes people docile and eliminates sexual desire and other sensual urges.

Zac is with Christopher when this information is discovered. Christopher then confronts Richard about it. Richard admits that The Blue is a medication that was given to the crew members to make them less likely to rebel or get distracted.

It’s also explained in the movie that the outer-space program doesn’t want the crew members to conceive children naturally. All conceptions are supposed to be by artificial insemination. It’s been pre-determined how many children and grandchildren each voyager will have, in order to prevent over-population.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t sit too well with Christopher and Zac to find out that their lives have been strictly controlled and manipulated by being given The Blue drug without their knowledge and consent. They decide to stop taking The Blue. And eventually, Christopher and Zac tell some other crew members that The Blue is really a drug to keep them complacent. And, of course, the word gets out to everyone else, and they also stop drinking The Blue.

Remember that scene of the cute and cuddly kids running up to Richard and hugging him? Well, the filmmakers of “Voyagers” want people to forget that scene, because (plot hole alert) they want viewers to think that these kids have now grown up to be people who don’t know what it’s like to express affection. It’s unclear how long the voyagers were taking The Blue, but it doesn’t matter because it’s not a drug that causes amnesia where they would forget childhood memories.

There’s a scene on the spaceship where Christopher sees Richard and Sela talking, and Richard has his hand affectionately on Sela’s shoulder, like a father would for a daughter. Christopher gets a little freaked out and acts as if Richard is one step away from being a sexual predator because Christopher can’t believe that someone is actually touching Sela in this way. When Christopher asks Sela in private if there’s anything inappropriate going on between her and Richard, she denies it, but Christopher doesn’t look completely convinced. It’s all just sloppy and contradictory screenwriting.

Keep in mind, these voyagers are the same people who, when they were children, were jumping up and hugging Richard and letting him tuck them into bed. It’s quite an unrealistic stretch that Christopher, now in his 20s, would suddenly act like he’s never seen Richard touch Sela in a fatherly way before, when Richard is essentially the only father these kids have ever known. By the way, this movie never shows the young voyagers being curious about who their biological parents are, even though Christopher mentions in a conversation that they’ve inherited physical and personality traits from their unknown parents.

After certain characters in “Voyagers” stop taking The Blue, the movie makes a big deal of showing them acting out as they lose their inhibitions. For Zac, that means a touch can’t just be a touch. When he touches Sela’s face affectionately, it quickly turns into fondling her breasts without consent. Zac and Christopher suddenly get the urge to wrestle each other a lot. And there are multiple scenes of the crew members running playfully through hallways, as if they’ve never done it before in their lives.

Through a series of circumstances, the voyagers also learn about violence. And the rest of the movie plays out as predictably as you think it would. Christopher and Zac go from being friends to being bitter enemies. And in true “Lord of the Flies” fashion, people take sides, and there’s a battle over who’s going to be in power.

And what about the mission to explore this new planet? That gets lost in the arguing and fights that take up almost all of the last third of the movie. And there’s some nonsense about a possible alien that’s invaded the ship, which is a fear that Zac uses to manipulate people to do what he wants.

While all of this childish drama is going on, no one seems to be operating the spaceship. It must be on auto-pilot, just like this formulaic, substandard sci-fi flick is on auto-pilot for almost its entire duration. Out of all the actors portraying the young voyagers, Whitehead seems to be the one having the most fun (probably because he’s playing a villain role), and he smirks it up to the hilt.

Unfortunately, the scenes in the movie where the voyagers have been taking The Blue drug require them to talk in almost-robotic monotones. And so, there are long stretches of “Voyagers” that are quite boring because the actors are supposed to be portraying “numb” people. Richard is the only character on the spaceship who maintains a strong sense of lucid humanity, but the power structure ends up changing on the spaceship, so Richard isn’t in the movie as much as some viewers might think he would be.

The cinematography and visual effects for “Voyagers” aren’t terrible but they’re not outstanding either. The movie’s production design for the spaceship isn’t entirely convincing. The interior rooms often just look like a shiny and sterile cafeteria, office building or lounge space. There aren’t many exterior scenes in the movie because the voyagers spend more time quarreling or goofing off inside than actually working outside.

You know that “Voyagers” is a terrible sci-fi movie because it cares so little about this mission to explore a new planet. Not once do any of the voyagers talk about any hopes or fears that they have about what they might find on this new planet. You’d think that people who were raised to be these pioneering explorers would be curious. But no, not in this movie. “Voyagers,” just like the space mission in the movie, was badly conceived from the start and should have been aborted.

Lionsgate released “Voyagers” in U.S. cinemas on April 9, 2021.

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