An officer fights his way through a repeated series of combat scenarios in an attempt to defeat an alien race. Two young cancer patients are transported by the power of love, but are ultimately unable to run from their own mortality. These are the plots of Edge of Tomorrow and The Fault in Our Stars, respectively, two new films that vied for last weekend's top box office spot. The Fault in Our Stars is an adaptation of John Green's beloved YA novel, helmed by two relative unknowns. Edge of Tomorrow is a deliberately constructed, Tom Cruise starring, sci-fi blockbuster, crafted from the traditional recipe for mainstream cinematic success. But when the dust settled on Monday, the action-heavy film was left beaten to a bloody pulp; with a 48.2 million debut, TFiOS was the clear box office winner.
Mainstream blockbusters, especially action flicks, are often predicated on out of this world plots. Zombie invasions, killer viruses, and alien attacks are the bread and butter of a sci-fi industry that seeks to stun audiences with outlandish scenarios, made almost believable through the use of expensive visual effects. Edge of Tomorrow's alien army is, obviously, entirely divorced from our daily reality. And yet, this almost-unfathomable plot somehow manages to elicit a sense of déjà vu. While the events that unfold onscreen are anything but mundane, the skeleton of the film is still deeply familiar to us: brave, handsome man takes on evil, fights spectacularly, and triumphs. Trapped in the rigid conventions of today's blockbuster sci-fi genre, everything that was potentially bold, complicated, or foreign about this film has been reduced; the aliens are expected, the fight scenes are conventionally spectacular, and Tom Cruise is just another guy with a gun.
According to the rules of common sense, anything that is geared towards a younger audience ought to be simpler to understand, more easily pleasurable, and altogether less complicated than its adult counterparts. As Slate's Ruth Graham pointed out, this is generally the relationship between YA fiction and adult, literary fiction. She writes, "YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction." And yet, new YA blockbusters are flipping this equation on its head, offering complex stories and nuanced plots that put mainstream, "adult" films to shame.
Take, for example, another YA juggernaut: The Hunger Games trilogy. These movies follow a number of those derivative action movie prescriptions. A young, attractive hero takes on a powerful, evil regime. There are cool effects and epic instances of hand to hand combat. A light love story is peppered throughout. And yet, The Hunger Games, despite its YA origins and action blockbuster DNA, actually features a good deal of Graham’s "emotional and moral ambiguity." Katniss Everdeen is not a simple heroine. Her motivations for entering the Hunger Games were originally personal, not political. She is not the brains or the passion behind the revolution; in fact, her evolution from random citizen to face of the rebel faction happened largely by chance. Yes, Katniss is brave, strong, and principled, but she is not purely good, or unrealistically selfless.
This moral ambiguity is present throughout The Hunger Games, in a myriad of guises. Foolish, spoiled capital citizens profit off of the poverty of the outer districts, and yet many of them become friends and allies of Katniss, despite their inherent frivolity. These people are neither good nor bad; instead, like Katniss, they have stumbled upon their destinies, and must struggle to articulate and embody their own definitions of right and wrong. The Hunger Games portrays, in great detail, a world that is not our own.
Yet, despite its fantastical elements, it evokes the real world in ways that are challenging and complex; both through its explorations of themes like technology, fascism, and celebrity culture, and through its attempts to honestly and accurately portray a vivid, flawed, three dimensional young girl. In this way, The Hunger Games has a clear intellectual advantage over its made-for-the-movies competition. The trilogy is not rendered frivolous by its YA origins; rather, the emotional drive and strong characterization that attracted young readers to Katniss's story makes its cinematic rendering so much more than your average action flick, injecting nuance and complexity into a genre that often over-relies on fantasy, formulaic plot, and heavy action.
Like The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars succeeds by attempting to make a real, difficult, point, as opposed to just bringing in a paying audience. One would imagine that romantic flicks consistently feature more emotional depth, character complexity, and all over "reality" than their action contemporaries. However, the Hollywood romance film is, more often than not, highly formulaic. Two people meet, fall in love, undergo some sort of romantic trial, and then eventually find their happily ever after. For a long time, this standard plot line was highly profitable—what it lacked in authenticity, originality, and complexity, it made up for in aspirational appeal. These films’ predominately female audiences had been taught to aspire to their own perfect romances and happy marriages. But times have changed, and the traditional romance has largely been left in the dust. As Vulture’s Claude Brodesser-Akner writes, "romance and the idea of ‘happily ever after’ is less of an all-consuming fantasy, and so the traditional tropes of the romantic comedy are too quaint, even obsolete." The Fault in Our Stars hides a complicated message under a predictable "true love" facade. Like The Hunger Games, TFiOS doesn't scoff at tried and true Hollywood tropes. The undying love between two lovely, attractive characters is the main engine behind the film; and, while the ending isn't exactly conventional, the outline of the plot is hardly revolutionary. What's new, then, is the pairing of unhappy truths with sweet kisses and saccharine confessions.
As Jezebel's Lindy West points out, "The truth that The Fault in Our Stars gets so right, in its tidy little fiction, is how dangerous it is to really love someone." In our daily lives, even the greatest triumphs are accompanied by fear, anxiety, and doubt. By deifying traditional romances, conventional cinematic love affairs are ignoring one crucial fact—the impermanence of happily ever. Instead of fabricating a wacky premise in order to convey outdated themes (everyone has a soul mate, true love lasts forever), TFiOS uses an uncommon, but plausible tale to tell a universal truth. In this way, the happiness and aspirational glow of perfect romantic love gains depth and meaning when it is shadowed by the specter of death and loss. Even without 3D glasses and CGI effects, TFiOS has managed to reach new dimensions of reality, making its "adult" counterparts appear flat and rote in comparison.
The “emotional ambiguity” here is not whether the film’s young stars love each other, because they really, really do. The complexity is constructed between the work and the viewer, as we are all asked to come to terms with our own mortality, and question the value we instinctively place on love and happiness, despite the fact that these emotional states are inherently fleeting. TFiOS proves that increasingly jaded audiences don’t want to be force-fed outdated romantic notions that they have clearly grown disenchanted with. They want to be confronted with a more complicated notion of romantic love—to have the cathartic experience of wrestling with something true and vital, something that extends beyond the movie theater into the real world. The Fault in Our Stars might not begin to approach the complexity of a mature literary classic—but, when compared to its “adult” cinematic competition, it is wise beyond its years.