By Meredith Woerner
Los Angeles Times
In movie theaters this past weekend, a reluctant teen hero led a rebellion comprising an implausible clan of oppressed but likable young iconoclasts. Together they rose up around their chosen one to fight their government’s evil social engineering.
Sound familiar? No, it wasn’t a new installment of “The Hunger Games,” “The Maze Runner” or “The Giver.” And it wasn’t a reprise of “Saturday Night Live’s” “The Group Hopper” sketch, which blended almost every current dystopian teen trope into a trailer for a fake movie “written entirely,” the joke went, “in the comments section of a ‘Hunger Games’ trailer.”
The real film was “The Divergent Series: Allegiant — Part 1,” the third in the franchise starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James.
But with an opening weekend box office of just $29 million — compared with a $54 million start for “Divergent” (2014) and a slightly lower $52 million for “Insurgent” (2015) — “Allegiant” debuted at a disappointing No. 2 behind the rabbit-fronted “Zootopia, calling into question whether we are witnessing the end of the young adult dystopian wave at the movies.
Certainly we haven’t seen the end of this franchise: “The Divergent Series: Ascendent — Part 2” is scheduled for a 2017 release. And “The Maze Runner” is filming “The Death Cure,” the third and final installment of the series, which halted production last week after star Dylan O’Brien was injured on set.
But few films in this genre have been able to claim “The Hunger Games’” big bucks. The 2013 science-fiction thriller “The Host” made just more than $26.5 million in its entire domestic run, even though it was adapted from a novel written by “Twilight” author Stephanie Meyer and starred two-time Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan. Another alien-centric adaptation “The 5th Wave,” still in theaters, has made just under $34 million since its January debut.
Most discouraging was junior-high and grade-school English class mainstay “The Giver” by Newbery Medal-winning author Lois Lowry. The longtime passion project of actor Jeff Bridges boasted a hefty cast including himself and fellow Oscar winner Meryl Streep. But critics found the film flawed — L.A. Times Film Critic Kenneth Turan called it “disappointing” — and it made just $45 million in its domestic run.
Do these falling numbers indicate we are nearing the end of the teenage dystopian dynasty?
Senior media analyst for comScore Paul Dergarabedian doesn’t agree that the weight can be placed solely on the genre in question. “Athough as a whole the YA dystopian movies have had massive success, many films from this category have fallen short, so their continued relevance in the marketplace has come into question,” Dergarabedian said in an email.
He added, “The overriding premise of most of these films seem very similar and thus the natural conclusion is that YA audiences may be looking for other, perhaps fresher options.”
The pileup in genre films is not a new phenomenon. “Twilight” spawned a resurrection of vampire films. “Fright Night,” “Dark Shadows” and even “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” all sought to capitalize on the fang trend but failed to pump new blood into the genre. After the “Harry Potter” films made enough gold to fill the many vaults of Gringotts, Potter-fodder filled theaters serving up fistfuls of piping-hot childlike wonder. “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “The Seeker,” “The Bridge to Terabithia” and others all hoped to enchant some of that Hogwarts crowd or carve out their own fan-verse.
But most of those offerings failed to fly. Meanwhile, others are being totally revamped. The source material for “Golden Compass,” author Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials,” is being rebooted into a TV series at BBC One, much to the delight of disappointed fans who found the movie translation less than worthy.
Even though the movie dystopia looks to be slowly dwindling in box-office numbers, the “bleak future” trend is alive on television. The CW’s critically adored “The 100” just got renewed for another season, USA premiered Carlton Cuse’s alien-occupied Los Angeles thriller “Colony” in January and AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (while mostly teen-free) is still running strong with a spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead” in tandem. More is on the way. The CW gave the green light to an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” with a dystopian bent. Wrap your head around that.
On the film front, you only have to look at the coming attractions to see what the studios are hoping will capture the disposable income of the young-adult crowd. One exciting trend appears to be fairy-tale adaptations. Disney has already cued up a live-action “Beauty and the Beast” starring “Harry Potter’s” Emma Watson, and Chloe Moretz has been cast to star as the titular character in Universal’s live-action “Little Mermaid.” Will “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” the Snow White-inspired film with a dash of Snow Queen, cash in on the new trend this April? Only time and money will tell.