These days future-set postapocalyptic fables are so common that anything such a movie can do to make the idea fresh and original is more than welcome. Cormac McCarthy’s popular The Road and John Hillcoat’s ensuing adaptation with Viggo Mortensen helped to cement the profitability of the genre after a distinct lag since the Mad Max/Blade Runner heyday, and now dystopias seem to be coming through the woodwork. The fact that both Mad Max and Blade Runner will be getting new treatments soon should attest to that desire to recapture the glory days of the genre.
One of the latest entries is Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones, set in a world where water has finally become a scarce and precious commodity. The film is divided into sections focusing on different characters, starting with Michael Shannon’s Ernest Holm, continuing with Nicholas Hoult’s rogueish Flem, and ending with Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son-of-Ernest Jerome Holm. They’re all changed irrevocably by the drought, guarding what little they have with violence and ruthlessness, and most shades of innocence are gone by the time Young Ones takes place. As in most dystopias, it’s the state of things that causes this darker and more animalistic aspect of humanity to come to the surface.
But Young Ones doesn’t really push that idea past logical predictability. Michael Shannon is a hell of an actor, one of the most fascinating of the past few years, and so his section (which opens the film) is better just by virtue of having him in the driver’s seat. It basically descends from there, both in terms of acting and of story. Nicholas Hoult is fine as the duplicitous Fleming, and he’s probably not supposed to be as likeable or watchable as Shannon’s Ernest (spoiler: he’s not). Kodi Smit-McPhee is the young one of the group (is he one of the Young Ones of the title? Does the title even make any sense?) and seems to have tripled in size since he starred as the little boy in the aforementioned The Road. He’s a young actor, he’s got time, but here in Young Ones his performance just leaves a lot to be desired. Once the focus has shifted entirely onto his discovery of Fleming’s lies, Young Ones can do little to hold a viewer’s attention – we already know what Fleming has done, and McPhee’s Jerome isn’t convincing enough to warrant retreading the same ground.
The acting should be entirely forgiven, though, because Young Ones has plenty of problems elsewhere. The editing is some of the most jarring, hacked-together work you’re likely to see in a major motion picture. Smash cuts galore are used to introduce main characters, show vital moments in their development, gloss over emotional moments and just get from Point A to Point B. There’s startlingly little grace in it, and it serves to make Young Ones into an edge-of-your-seat viewing experience not because you’re waiting to see what happens next, but because you’d be dizzy if you just sat back to enjoy it.
The main problem, still, is that Young Ones takes a very familiar idea and just rebrands the characters and the setting and spits it back out again. The characters, Shannon’s Ernest aside, are largely forgettable. Hell, even Shannon’s character seems present only to be the moral compass for the rest of the movie. The setting is a wasteland, and not only is it The Road Lite, but it’s just not a world that sucks you in at all. Blade Runner lasts because someone took the time and care to craft the world down to the last pixel on that floating billboard thingy. Recent dystopias like Automata prove that the genre isn’t at all over and done with, as long as that care is taken with regards to world-building. Those behind Young Ones seem to have missed that entirely.