If you can get past the first 5 minutes of trite, cliched world building and magical thinking, there is something to this story and film. In fact quite a bit more than I expected. Damning praise, I realize, but if you’re going to play in the genre, you need to understand it. The huge “what ifs” in the setup and how things work are most definitely at odds. But, as an allegory and exploration of what makes us human and what creates value in a life and a life lived, it resonates well and probably speaks to its intended audience in the 12-17 age range competently. The rest of us get a solid message too, but we probably have to squint more through the framework that is used to tell the story.
Brenton Thwaites (Ride, Gods of Egypt) does a solid job of being a naive, earnest teenager with a mission. His sense of duty is unwavering and his emotions raw. He is the Utopian rebel with a cause. As part of his story, Odeya Rush (Goosebumps) almost gets to be a real girl, but is hampered by the script and production. For someone with with few emotions and sense of individuality, she is made awfully fetching and easy to change. In counter-point, Cameron Monaghan (Vampire Academy) is the angry young man who finds a purpose. His choices, at least, are less predictable, though wholly expected. And, of course, there is the stunt casting of Taylor Swift (The Lorax)… but while an important role, she has little impact on screen.
Overseeing the world they are in, Jeff Bridges (Childhood’s End) and Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash) make an interesting pair. Bridges has the far more interesting role and range, but Streep adds some depth to an otherwise flat role. And, without a single bit of dialogue about it, the two manage to imply a huge history between them that goes unspoken. For Thwaites home-life, Katie Holmes (Woman in Gold) and Alexander Skarsgård (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) serve as his parents. Holmes is her usual uncredible self, but Skarsgård creates a man full of conflicting emotions, desires, and naivtee. Admittedly, the two, together, form a unit that helps drive Thwaites’ choices, so I probably should give Holmes a break here; she did serve the purpose she needed to.
Director Noyce (Salt) did a lot with what he had to work with, script-wise. Visually, the production is unique, despite its obvious leaning on standard tropes and its uninspired dialogue. The young cast is competent. The older cast almost manages to overshadow them, but not entirely, which is a neat trick given the experience gap. The story benefits from the media of screen where some of the ideas of the book were easier to show than tell. But for all its clever and meaty middle of ideas, the beginning and ending are just childish and poorly thought through science fantasy. Fun to do, but not very credible.
What is more interesting to me is that this is yet another dystopia set behind walls and dealing with stolen or hidden memories. Whether it is Wayward Pines, Divergent, Maze Runner, Wool, or The Hunger Games, just to name a few, there is a huge trend in the young adult psyche around these themes. Admittedly, isolation and confusion in people entering adulthood is not unusual (heck, ain’t even unusual in those practiced in that next phase of life), but the preponderance of stories about young people who need to overthrow everything to make it right again seem to be at a high that hasn’t existed since the early 70s. One nice change from then is how many of the stories have strong women at the core (this wasn’t one of them, but the women weren’t weak either). There are many ways to interpret this upwelling of this particular set of tropes, but it certainly signifies something in the sensibility of the upcoming generation, and even the adults, who are reading these in droves as well.
The film has much more going for it that I would have imagined. It really has tried to break the mold in some ways… it isn’t the typical wasteland battle or oppressive squalor. It offers a view of seeming perfection with the proverbial worm at the center to ask much bigger questions than many of the other stories in its group. It may not be quite the adult piece of fiction, in its planning, that I would have liked, but it is worth your time. It even has me looking at more of author, Lois Lowry’s, work; she likes to ask good questions.