Are young adult dystopia films in decline?

Divergent, Maze Runner, Hunger Games, The 5th Wave - is the young adult dystopia bubble bursting now?

This article contains spoilers for The Divergent Series: Insurgent, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.

Every time a new comic book movie, there’s a corresponding rise in the number of think-pieces about when the superhero movie bubble is going to burst. There have been an average of four superhero movies a year for the last five years, but with a diverse range of characters and even genres in play, the so-called fatigue isn’t having any obvious negative effect on the popularity or diversity of Marvel and DC’s movies.

Meanwhile, it feels like there are just as many dystopian films based on young adult fiction every year, and they seem to be getting more and more same-y with each successive franchise instalment. Moreover, the mass of tropes and clichés that have already built up, within a post-apocalyptic genre that was only refreshed for the big screen as recently as 2012’s The Hunger Games, threaten to turn it into the sort of thing that it usually ends up rooting against – a baffling system of uniformity in which uniqueness is either suppressed or otherwise non-existent.

January’s non-starter The 5th Wave was a movie that embodied the YA formula in such a way that it could as easily have been loosely adapted from the trailers for The Maze Runner or Divergent, rather than Rick Yancey’s best-selling novel. It starred young up-and-comers and grown-up character actors, fighting an inter-generational conflict within the bounds of a contrived plot. It’s less formulaic than outright automatic.

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Thanks to a couple of breakout hits in recent years, January isn’t the cinematic dumping ground it once was. But The 5th Wave is a January film that fell right into the gulf between dreck like Dirty Grandpa and Oscar fare that has been held over for the UK like The Revenant and The Big Short, earning poor notices from critics and barely any box office – it opened in ninth place at the box office over here and didn’t fare much better in the US.

The most recent sequels to Divergent, The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games all made less at the box office than previous instalments too, which would seem to indicate a decline a popularity. As the lowest opener of its franchise, Mockingjay Part 2 still made over $100m in its opening weekend, so nobody’s going to lose the roof over their head, but we might start to see these movies fall off a bit.

Given how these films are adapted from books, we won’t overlook how this super-generic phenomenon started on the page first, but there’s a troubling sameness suffusing the adaptations too. Looking at these franchises and The 5th Wave, let’s comb through the common criticisms of the formula and figure out where things started going downhill.

Contrived plots

Compared to the hoops that other films jump through, The 5th Wave is a fairly straightforward alien invasion movie in its first act, with Chloë Grace Moretz as heroine Cassie Sullivan, recounting the recent history. The first four waves of the extraterrestrial onslaught recycle apocalyptic scenarios from recent films like The World’s End, 2012, Contagion and er, The World’s End again, before Liev Schreiber’s Colonel Vosch mobilises an Ender’s Game style task-force of youngsters to combat against the imminent fifth wave of attack.

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There’s a fairly predictable twist in here, as the film borrows a little too heavily from one of those aforementioned movies later on, but aside from more obviously wearing its influences on its sleeve, it has a lot in common with all of the other contrived plots, insofar as it is too concerned with explaining how they got there before the story begins.

Even though most of these movies are set in a far-flung future or even a parallel universe, there’s usually some lip service to fictional history that gets in the way of the story, and some of these plots really put the ‘why?’ in YA. Just as Cassie narrates this in The 5th Wave, large swaths of Divergent had Shailene Woodley’s Tris Prior explaining the bizarre caste system for the audience’s benefit, because it’s harder to show than to tell.

For those who still don’t know, Divergent‘s post-apocalyptic Chicago exists under a stunted sort of anti-Inside Out system in which people can only be either brave or smart or happy or honest or kind – having a personality that fits more than one of these criteria makes you divergent. As of Insurgent, Tris appears to be all five, thus making her a superhero rather than a well-rounded human being. The second movie also collapses this elaborate dictatorship when a world outside Chicago is discovered and the next two movies, based on the third and final book, Allegiant, will take on new grown-ups.

Immunity is a common factor of specialness in these teenage protagonists – The Scorch Trials makes this literal for the heroes of The Maze Runner, by having the unethical paramilitary organisation WCKD (pronounced exactly how you’d think) try to harvest an antidote to the world-ravaging Flare virus from the immune teenagers. There hasn’t yet been a satisfactory explanation in the movies about why they decided to test them with a maze, but we bet its something to do with wickedness.

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The Hunger Games is comparatively propulsive – we know that there have been 73 televised death matches when the story begins and the nation’s name of Panem implies the ‘bread and circuses’ approach of ancient Rome. The films handle any other exposition fairly well, but as a YA film that takes a simple dystopian plot – kids fighting to the death – and doesn’t get too tangled up in what happened before we got there, it’s an outlier. Typically, Lionsgate is still thinking about making a prequel to rectify this.

Lack of visual flair

Another case in which The Hunger Games eludes the usual criticisms would be in its visual style. The fashion aspect was one of the sneered-at aspects in some quarters because it was ‘for girls’, but in translating the story for the screen, the franchise makes the most of the media war that underlies the more straightforward battles with the Capitol.

The most subversive part of Mockingjay Part 1 involved a propaganda for District 13’s campaign against the Capitol that ended with the same font and whistled motif as every single trailer for the franchise. This is the start of an arc in which the organisation of the good guys seems to have picked up a few of the bad guys’ dirty tricks too, which directly commentates on the wholesale marketing of revolution and the illusion of empowerment therein.

Few other films in this category have the iconography to work with on that scale – heck, characters in different movies even dress the same. Film critic Mark Kermode nailed this in his review of last year’s Maze Runner sequel, The Scorch Trials, saying you fully expect to meet the cast of Divergent “coming the other way over the brow of the dystopian YA hill”, a la Shaun Of The Dead‘s encounter with Jessica Stevenson’s crew. Batman and Iron Man might have certain things in common, but at least they dress differently.

Insurgent did mark something of a revamp for the Divergent series – it was released in 3D and did more visually interesting stuff with the examinations that classify people’s personalities, including a much-trailed nightmare sequence involving a chase in a floating, flaming house. This looks set to continue with next month’s Allegiant, in which the studios have seemingly followed Tris’ lead and diverged from the source material to put in a bit more action and VFX intrigue, much to the chagrin of online commenters who’ve read the books.

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Meanwhile, The Maze Runner and The 5th Wave are like contrasting studies in how to use a mid-range $30m budget to make a sci-fi movie. Costuming aside, The Maze Runner is very stylised for its budget, with the huge maze and the creatures therein lending ample opportunity for some gnarly production design and intense action sequences. Meanwhile, The 5th Wave‘s affordability hinges on aliens being able to take human form, a time-honoured and conveniently cost-cutting measure that would presumably have been further developed if Sony were to greenlight a sequel or two.

Still, The 5th Wave‘s distributors did have the gumption to accept the BBFC certification of 15 in the UK, which is one regard in which it was unique. When even action mainstays like Taken and Die Hard will take advice and trim sequels rather than miss out on the 12A audience, this suggests more gumption than the film itself carries. There’s more injury detail than in The Hunger Games, for instance, but it doesn’t feel like it when you’re watching the fight sequences unfurl.

Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was the most acclaimed part of The Hunger Games, but the other franchises seem to focus more on identifying with the lead star than on iconography – there’s the one with Shailene Woodley, the one with Chloë Grace Moretz and the one with the lad from Teen Wolf. But crucially, nobody calls The Hunger Games ‘the one with Jennifer Lawrence’ and the lack of visual identity in its successors makes their blockbuster status feel a little slack.

Love triangles

On the other hand, the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale was by far the least rounded part of The Hunger Games on screen, and the films wisely didn’t focus too much on it until it had to reach some form of resolution in Mockingjay Part 2. In the films, there is never any danger of her picking Liam Hemsworth’s Gale, because there’s no spark between them in any scene, but that’s still only marginally less than what Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson have as Katniss and Peeta. Plus, Peeniss is just irresistible as a ship name.

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But in keeping with the kit-bashed feel of The 5th Wave, there’s a love triangle there too, which feels more like a token throwback to Twilight than something that links every one of these movies. These romantic complications usually arise in sequels, once we already know the characters, but The 5th Wave hits the ground running by presenting Cassie with an empty choice between a boy she’s known all her life, but hasn’t seen since the aliens attacked, or a boy she’s just met, but he chops wood with his top off.

Even by Team Edward and Team Jacob standards, it’s facile and unconvincing – even an actress of Moretz’s calibre can’t elevate the lip-chewing banality of it. Since Katniss came on the scene, these films have largely been pitched at a young female audience and there’s supposed to be an aspirational quality to the romantic aspect. That falls flat in this case, in part because the emphasis on teenage concerns has been focused elsewhere since all the vampire romances tailed off.

Inter-generational conflict

If we’re to believe the adage that every generation wants to be the last, then this all really comes down to young adult dystopia being a stage for inter-generational conflict between those youngsters and their adult oppressors.

We’re being careful not to sneer at these movies on account of their target audience – teenagers are hardly an under-serviced market, but it’s no bad thing that there are movies which dramatise their anxieties in an entertaining way. The problem is more to do with the so-called four quadrant mass appeal that they try to ascribe to those anxieties, making stories that are just vague enough that they could apply to everyone. Whatever race, gender or sexuality they are, the heroes are in a certain age bracket and the rogue’s gallery of stalwart character actors are not. It’s you versus Donald Sutherland, and frankly, he doesn’t know what he’s on about.

It’s an extraordinarily self-destructive way of going about it, because none of us are getting any younger. Again, it’s only The Hunger Games, which rewards its surviving characters with either PTSD or further bereavement, that seems to grasp the futility of it all. In the end, it feels like a vent for societal conflicts that’s safely deflected away from real life inequality. No wonder studios like making these things so much – they’re so far removed from reality, they’re little more than wish fulfilling power fantasies for the target audience.

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Again, there’s nothing wrong with a little wish fulfilment, but the recent decline suggests that the audience is wiser than producers anticipate. In the light of blank slate protagonists, Tris’ emotional omnipotence suddenly looks like a catch-all for any reader/viewer who’s more than one of those five qualities. There are just as many vagaries elsewhere and this is one of the main reasons why these films could start to merge into each other.

Sequel?

A lot of these films are based on series of more than one book and so sequel potential is always on the table. As an annoying by-product of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows splitting the unwieldy finale into an arthouse road movie and an action-packed climactic battle, there’s even more franchise to be had when the book is split into two movies.

For all its flaws, Twilight remains the only one that has done this right – Breaking Dawn Part 1 is completely self-contained and doesn’t end on a cliffhanger for Part 2, and that was based on a quartet of books. Once upon a time, trilogies were just fine, but The Hunger Games and Divergent have both gotten them wrong by cleaving their respective third volumes in twain.

After Mockingjay Part 2, it’s significant that the two planned Divergent movies will drop the ‘Part 1’ and ‘Part 2’ tags and adopt the titles Allegiant (after the book) and Ascendant instead, because the audience is getting fed up of the splits leaving films unfinished too. To director Wes Ball’s immense credit, The Maze Runner is having none of that, and will wrap up his good old-fashioned trilogy with next year’s final instalment The Death Cure.

But like those pesky third book adaptations, the sequel problem is twofold. Firstly, there’s a tendency to ask a lot of questions that don’t get answered by the time the credits roll. The best case scenario is that you’re waiting a year or more for the movie to make sense when the sequel comes out, but more commonly, you get films that underperform, like The 5th Wave, and those questions are left dangling forever. On the other hand, stories of revolution in major motion picture franchises are often compromised by the filmmakers’ ulterior interests.

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Even though the story is intended as an anticlimax and the film version boasts more action than its subversive predecessor, it’s clear why Mockingjay Part 2 wound up being the most underwhelming film of the Hunger Games series. It’s a little like the sequels to The Matrix continuing a story in which freed minds raged against the machines under the banner of a ‘year of the Matrix’, in which the mass audience was plied with gallons of Powerade in addition to the movies, animated spin-offs and videogames.

To borrow a phrase, perhaps it was ‘inevitable’ that those movies shifted focus from the originally stated goal of destroying the system and freeing the individual, onto stopping one individual rogue element, Agent Smith. The trilogy ended with the system intact and the villain defeated – the title promised Revolutions, but the unity we got mostly came in the popular (and only partly unfair) consensus that the Matrix sequels were a load of bollocks.

So it goes, with young adult-oriented movies, that you can’t hold a dramatisation of revolution to any standard when it also has to sell Subway sandwiches and clear two and a half times the amount that major corporations have put into making it. But really, it might help if they got it done in three movies every once in a while.

Conclusion

Except for the point about trilogies, the aforementioned ingredients are all fairly evergreen tropes that can and have been done well. They only feel worn out because they’ve become part-and-parcel of a large number of films in a very short space of time. The Hunger Games films are objectively the best of these precisely because they use the tropes as commentary on the war of media and propaganda that goes on alongside the more violent revolution.

In an ideal world, films like these could start discussions or commenting on real political inequality as well as being entertaining, but it’s not too much to ask that they’re at least one or the other. Young adult dystopia movies seem to be in the process of becoming intellectual hamster wheels, moulding nonsensical worlds in the image of how adults think teenagers see the world, rather than reflecting something more thought provoking.

The source material is usually commercially friendly too, but they’ve overwhelmingly tended to become shallower on screen. The market seems to have shifted in favour of YA adaptations like The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns instead, and as melodramatic as they can be, they both relate to teenagers on a more grounded level.

The Maze Runner and Divergent both err towards action rather than allegory and the diminishing box office returns for these movies would seem to show that they’re not really stimulating the target audience either. Those films both have sequels on the way but now that The Hunger Games is over, it’s ironic that the future looks more uncertain than ever in a trend with such a dim view of things to come.