Divergent (2014)

divergentDirected by Neil Burger. Screenplay by Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor. Based on the novel by Veronica Roth. Produced by Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shabazian, Douglas Wick. Music by Junkie XL. Photographed by Alwin H. Küchler. Edited by Richard Francis-Bruce, Nancy Richardson. Production designed by Andy Nicholson. Starring Shailene Woodley (Tris), Theo James (Four), Ashley Judd (Natalie), Jai Courtney (Eric), Ray Stevenson (Marcus), Zoë Kravitz (Christina), Miles Teller (Peter), Tony Goldwyn (Andrew), Ansel Elgort (Caleb), Maggie Q (Tori), Mekhi Phifer (Max), Kate Winslet (Jeanine).

Many sci-fi films have taken place amid dystopias, but Divergent is the first one to predict the downfall of the Myers-Briggs personality test. It posits a future world where society (or at least Chicago) is divided into five factions, each one built around a psychological trait. At its center is a plucky heroine, Beatrice, who is special. Of course she is. She is a divergent, which means she doesn’t fit into the classes, but she tries to fake it. She also becomes a key figure in a political revolution that depends upon certain people’s character, or lack of it. The movie is based on a young adult novel by Veronica Roth, but those who have not read it may still feel that this story sounds very familiar.

The classes are as follows. There are the Abnegations, who are politicians. There are the Erudite, the learned and logicians. Amity is the class for pacifists and farmers. Dauntless is for the brave soldiers.  And then there is Candor—they tell the truth and nothing but. In this world, when one comes of age they take a psychological test that advises their faction, and once selected, they stick to it with fanatical loyalty. Otherwise they are cast out and become homeless. There are even stereotypes for each group. When a lab technician sees an Abnegation admiring herself in a mirror, she remarks: “What is it with Abnegations and mirrors?” I know, right?! They’re the worst! But seriously, folks. Some of my best friends are Abnegations.

The movie stars Shailene Woodley in what is a bit of a coming of age for both her character and for her as an actress. Seen before in sparkling supporting roles (see her troubled daughter to George Clooney in The Descendants and her lovestruck innocent teen in The Spectacular Now), Divergent marks her entrance to the big time, just as soon as she completes the young adult adaptation/superhero movie decathlon that so many young actors must partake in these days in order to graduate to better things. She does an admirable job in Divergent, playing an Abnegation named Beatrice who is shocked to reveal her personality test is inconclusive; in defiance, she joins up with the Dauntless class and changes her name to Tris. (This may be a pun, as she is a girl who definitely refuses to “Bea.”) These choices slightly concern her brother (Ansel Elgort) and parents (Ashley Judd, Ray Stevenson), either because she’s turned her back on the family class, or possibly because with the Dauntless she may wind up dead. The second possibility is, I suppose, reasonable.

These Dauntless (Dauntlesses?), they’re quite the cut ups. For being the state-ordained army, they are shockingly not well funded. They run around the city like extras in a West Side Story revue, hitching rides on phantom el trains that apparently have no other passengers. They then disembark in places not designed as rail stations, if you get my meaning. When they’re not doing that, they’re staging capture the flag scenarios under the free reign of the city they apparently enjoy, and their home is a series of abandoned warehouses and tunnels where they can stage mini fight clubs. Their crowded, slapped-together mess hall would make Dickens proud. Dauntlesses (Dauntlessi?)  are vaunted for their bravery, but they seem to encompass all sorts of alternate lifestyles, which means they’re like an inoffensive mix of punk brats and Bjork fans. (Warning, parents: “Let’s all get tattoos!” is a line in the movie, and it’s one that is followed up on.)

To be divergent is to live in secrecy and fear. That’s how a lot of teens feel, of course, but here the stakes are very high indeed. To be divergent means you’re immune to the constant indoctrination and brainwashing that the factions employ, and there are methods constantly used to smoke out impostors. You also have to master multiple virtual reality tests where you have to confront your fears, and although divergent brains have built-in cheat codes for these games, that makes them all the more suspicious. Soon Tris is under the nose of Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), an Erudite who is engineering a coup against the ruling class of Abegnates. As a rather tortured allegory for the choices teens make as they grow up and attempt to self-identify, this will do, I guess.

At this point I gotta wonder, though. Is this really a workable caste system for a civilization? Doesn’t a farmer require basic understanding of science to raise crops? Are soldiers not allowed to tell the truth? Are politicians not expected to be brave and honest? (Actually, strike that, that one makes sense.) The movie has an answer for why some of these class distinctions are upheld (some are mind controlled), but lobbying to institute them in the first place must have been an uphill battle, one that’s not even hinted at. Where’s that story? It’s possible that we’ll get our answers in the already-in-production sequels, projects that all-too-clearly exist in the screenplay’s mind. During a visit to the wall surrounding Chicago, one character asks “What’s out there?” and never gets a satisfactory answer, like this is a round-robin or a Lost episode. Sorry, folks, we can’t reveal it. Maybe next season.

What we have here in Divergent is a dubious framework to hang a speculative fiction story, but then so many of them are. I love movies and I love sci-fi, which means I am blessed with disbelief that is waiting to be suspended. I smiled at the voice-over narration that sets up the story with economy and speed. I liked the little touches of production design like the spare, squarish homes that house Abnegates. I was on board with Divergent even while it was ticking through dystopic young adult clichés.

I started to tune out, however, when I realized it was never really going to stop. Divergent is completely made of bits and pieces of better stories, and although it is reasonably polished, it never shakes that hand-me-down feeling. It evokes the fascism and brain manipulation of Hunger Games and 1984, swipes the wall from Game of Thrones, and its intelligent and spunky heroine recalls practically everything but Twilight. It throws in a typical romance that is admirably understated and triangle-free: the moment where she admires the tattoos on the bare back of Four (Theo James) is as hot as it gets.  Also, there’s a dash of Logan’s Run in that so few of the characters are over 30. Even fewer if you don’t count bad guys.

On some level, this all more or less works. But it still feels empty and perfunctory. Unlike its heroine, Divergent never transcends its own self-imposed classification; it pretty much stays on the level of a YA-inspired potboiler throughout. Tris is ably played by Woodley, but her character is murky and ill-defined, which is undoubtedly the point but it doesn’t make her interesting. The film is handsomely mounted by director Neil Burger (The Illusionist), but it feels uneasy in the way it marries this bleak material to a PG-13 rating (and audience). The film’s climactic armed revolution, for example, is so whitewashed and ideologically soft that it plays like someone’s synopsis of an uprising, not an actual one. That’s probably due to the Winslet character being so underwritten—what exactly is the motivation of a woman who wants to stamp out all free will everywhere? The movie doesn’t answer. Because it’s not about her, conveniently.

It is the curious mark of a teenager to think thoughts and then immediately believe no one has ever thought of them before. In Divergent that includes the notions of armed revolution and active rejection of the five-class system as opposed to passive acceptance. It is helpful for the story that Tris is the one to innovate these concepts, because otherwise someone else would be the hero, and that would not do. The structure of Divergent is a closed system, one that purposefully resonates with a teen’s needs to be seen as both smarter and more misunderstood than anyone else. In actuality, the smartest teens know they still have much learning to do. And to be sure, Hollywood understands teeangers very very well. That’s how movies like Divergent get made, don’t you know. B-

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