'Divergent' is an unintentional parody of its entire genre
Divergent Summit Entertainment
Director: Neil Burger
Screenplay: Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, based on the novel by Veronica Roth
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Zoë Kravitz, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Maggie Q and Kate Winslet
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 19 minutes
March 21, 2014
(out of four)
The premise of Divergent is, to an almost comical degree, a facsimile of every other young-adult dystopian thriller ever made. You know the formula: the world is oppressive and classist, but our hero(ine) is different and special, a humble savior who is a grave threat to the entire system. The specifics in this case? A post-war future in which society is organized into five distinct classes of people - determined by an invasive psychological test - and a protagonist who is just too unique to be classified. Nobody, it seems, puts baby in a corner.
If I were to give the movie credit for the self-awareness it does not possess, I'd say it's commenting on the YA dystopian formula itself by cheekily replicating it in the most literal-minded way possible. But that would be an exceedingly generous interpretation. Instead, it's more like a skeleton version of this type of story, built on vague placeholders where specific ideas should be.
It's fitting that everyone in this futuristic world is identified by one-word descriptors, because that's about as far as any of the thinking behind the script (based on Veronica Roth's novel) went. The film doesn't have any ideas - it has ideas about having ideas. And once you realize it has nothing to say about its premise, you kinda have to start examining it at face value.
But taking this conceit at face value was the filmmakers' whole approach in the first place, and frankly it's the central problem. As with most dystopian fiction, there are elements of satire inherent to Divergent, but director Neil Burger's approach is fatally straightforward. The world we see is instantly familiar - it looks like ours, only war-torn. The people talk the way we talk. They dress in slightly modified versions of the things we wear. And they live in a society whose most fundamental structure is based on concepts of psychology and biology that do not exist and make no sense.
See, this is the problem with face value. We shouldn't be discussing the ins and outs of a dystopian premise. I shouldn't be. But here we are, and it's because Burger forces us to accept it not in futuristic or allegorical or abstract terms, but in normal, 21st-Century human terms. This is not a speculative world or a satirical one, but regular old Chicago, a few years down the road after its buildings have all been half-destroyed by a catastrophic war. The personality-based class system is presented as a solution to the problem of a post-war society - a basis for the reconstruction of a city and/or country - but Roth has given it a scientific basis that flies in the face of whatever commentary it may be trying to offer.
People are split up into five factions - Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite (a collection of words that reeks of someone trying to make very basic ideas seem much more sophisticated or formal than they need to be). (And why some of them are nouns and some adjectives, I have no idea. It would sure be simple to convert them all to the same form. But I digress.)
As teenagers, citizens are given an official test to help determine what faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives. But if we're going to accept this on literal terms the way the movie wants us to, we'd need to have more than five factions. Human personalities are virtually unlimited, but if you're going to split people into types to support this premise, the least you could do is give humanity more than five personality traits to choose from.
There's a dichotomy within the fabric of Divergent that it never reconciles. It makes explicitly clear that the faction-based setup is a societal construct, designed to restore, and keep, order. Yet it readily accepts the idea that people can easily be biologically tested and split into five groups based on one trait apiece. It buys that idea, hook and line and sinker, and that is its own undoing. Come to think of it, the movie may have worked better without the inclusion of the personality test at all. Surely there's a way to get the exact same points across, and even have the exact same story, without relying on a plot function so flimsy it contradicts the film's own philosophy, not to mention common sense?
The film gets its title from the presumably "extremely rare" case in which someone's test comes out inconclusive, meaning they tested positive for multiple (if not all five) factions. And here we go again with the problematic conceit. If, as the movie wants us to accept, these are plausibly human people we're dealing with, then everyone would test out as divergent. Everyone. If Roth doesn't think so, then she has just as negative a view of humanity as the story's antagonists, if not more so.
The general flaw with this system is surely part of Divergent's point, but there's nothing in the movie to convince me it really knows what to do with that point, or that it even understands it. It knows it's vaguely about something - conformity bad! individuality good! (among other things) - but it pretty much stops right there.
As is usually the case these days, for the lead role Hollywood snapped up one of the best young actresses around. Hopefully this franchise won't ruin Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now) the way Twilight did Kristen Stewart. Woodley plays Beatrice Prior, who was born into an Abnegation family (they're the selfless folks who help others, serve the public good and reject vanity) before testing as a divergent, a result quickly covered up by the tester (Maggie Q), who's well aware that formally identifying anyone as divergent is a risk to his or her life.
Burger, a director who makes things look nice enough without ever being particularly cinematic (just consider his stultifyingly mundane direction on 2011's Limitless), fails to deliver on the film's biggest moments. First and foremost, Beatrice's personality test, for which he engineers a strangely brief and ineffectual subconscious sequence involving an endless hall of mirrors and an attacking dog, before she's snapped out of it, told she's divergent and quickly shoved out of the testing room. This is the most pivotal scene in the film - the root of the main character's entire conflict - and all Burger has to offer is a short glimpse at the most run-of-the-mill dream imagery imaginable? Later on he pulls off a couple of similar scenes a tad more effectively, if still rather blandly. But the failure to really deliver the film's most essential moment is an egregious one. It would be like screwing up Bruce Banner's first transformation into the Hulk - it's the catalyst for everything else in the movie, and it comes across as a cheap, half-completed dream.
As the custom goes each year, those who've been tested can select their own faction in a choosing ceremony. Most people go with the result of their test; a few rebel and go a different direction. Beatrice - who eventually shortens her name to just Tris - has no clear answer for her future, so she chooses to join Dauntless, the adventurous, thrill-seeking types who serve as society's protectors.
But before you go and start thinking that sounds cool ... just take a look at how the movie portrays the Dauntless. As far as the movie is concerned, being Dauntless just means you run around constantly, climb things, and jump off of things. They really don't do much else except run, jump and climb. And then run some more. The moment you realize this, the Dauntless instantly become hilarious. But, again, I digress.
Against the backdrop of some hopelessly boring political intrigue (the Erudites, led by an uncomfortably sinister Kate Winslet, want to take over control of the government from Abnegation), Tris begins her initiation into the Dauntless (which has to be earned; any initiate who doesn't pass is left permanently factionless), and along with that comes friendship with Christina (Zoë Kravitz), rivalry with Peter (Miles Teller), budding romance with one of the Dauntless leaders, Four (Theo James), and an antagonistic teacher/student relationship with Eric (the franchise-humping Jai Courtney*). I'll give Divergent this - in a rare case for a YA thriller, the male lead is actually an interesting actor. In a YA world of Taylor Lautners, Josh Hutchersons, Alex Pettyfers and those Whoever-the-Hells from The Host and The Mortal Instruments, it's nice to see someone with a formidable presence for once.
* Courtney is also an interesting actor, but he's in a strange rut of almost exclusively selecting franchises and wanna-be franchises, a strategy that has found him in the likes of A Good Day to Die Hard, I, Frankenstein, Jack Reacher, Divergent and the upcoming new Terminator saga.
As Tris' initiation process progresses, the power struggle between Abnegation and the odious Erudite comes to the fore, with the film (which begins to come across as rather anti-intellectual) trying to make the case that Abnegation, as natural public servants, should remain in power. But, while the Erudites prove to be a heinous bunch, writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor conveniently overlook the fact that the Abnegation government allows there to be a destitute, factionless underclass in the first place. The factionless (which, given how easily someone can fail their initiation to Dauntless, would presumably be much more numerous than they appear to be) are depicted as dirty, helpless vagrants who easily could have been assimilated into other groups if the movie's rules weren't so patently stupid. (In this world, once a determination of faction has been made, it cannot be unmade.) We should presumably empathize with the Abnegation faction in this struggle, yet they've hardly done anything to earn our trust, let alone the rest of society's.
But while Divergent, in thought and internal logic, is without doubt very, very dumb, it's not worth the energy to actively dislike it. In most ways it's competently made, and the way it takes its time with certain parts of Tris' journey gives the whole thing an unusual (in a good way) rhythm that allows Woodley, strong as always, to carry it on her back. But as good as she is, she can't make up for the film's basic lack of wisdom. Having never read the novel, I'm not sure if the lion's share of blame rests with the original author or with the filmmakers. But either way, hoo-boy, what a completely wrongheaded approach to this concept.