Monday, April 14, 2014

The Hunger Matrix Mess: Divergent Is A Poor Amalgamation Of Better Ideas.

The Good: Effects are fine, Most of the acting is convincing-enough
The Bad: Dull plot, Listless characters, Ridiculous setting
The Basics: Despite serious conceptual problems, Divergent is watchable . . . even if it is not very good.

For all of my issues with the film Divergent, which will follow, I wanted to start off with a positive note from the Credit Where Credit Is Due Department. For all of the problems with Divergent, it has singlehandedly revitalized the Teen Fantasy Literature Turned Movie Genre. Since the end of The Twilight Saga (reviewed here!), the genre has been flooded with movies and the only one to reliably continue the trend of making blockbuster films was The Hunger Games (reviewed here!) and its sequel. Despite other films, like Beautiful Creatures (reviewed here!) and the recent Vampire Academy (reviewed here!) film adaptations containing many of the same elements that made earlier teen lit film adaptations successful, none have captured the imagination of their audience – and, more importantly, a broader audience – since then.

Until now, with Divergent.

Only, I am at a loss as to figure out why. Divergent is yet another dystopian future where people live in servitude to an oppressive regime and only teenage characters seem to be able to save the world by trying to topple the oppressors. There’s the obligatory love plotline and everyone in the thing is too damn good looking to live in a world that is otherwise as unclean as the sets and setting demands. But on top of all that, Divergent is just so damn predictable! Anyone who loves film, has seen any films of a similar ilk and has a working brain will be able to call almost all of the direction of Divergent as soon as each new element is introduced. In fact, the only seemingly original aspects of Divergent, which is like The Hunger Games minus the bloodsport, seem heavily lifted from The Matrix (reviewed here!). Yes, the mindwiped, centrally-controlled zombie army that appears in the last act bears a striking resemblance to the concept of the Mr. Smith character (or other Agent characters) from The Matrix. As it always behooves me to, it is worth mentioning that I have not read the book upon which Divergent is based.

Following a great and terrible war that has decimated the human population, the remnants of society are living in the remains of Chicago, which is protected from unnamed threats outside by a massive fence. Inside the city, humans now live under a strict caste system based on a combination of birth and personality (most of the population stays within the caste in which they are born, though everyone has the choice of which caste to join when they come of age). Outside the farming caste and the truthful Candor faction, there are three relevant factions within normal society: the selfless Abnegation faction (who are so giving that they are the only ones who are trusted to run the place, despite there being a caste that is built around unwavering honesty and one has to wonder how the farming group is not considered selfless), the intelligent Erudites, and the Dauntless who are so brave that they are given the job of policing the city and its borders and keeping everyone inside safe (though their entrance into the film is a raucous tribute to parkour, which is hardly a great example of law abiding behavior). Those who flunk out of the tests needed to train in the various Factions end up factionless as the derelicts of society. Those who show multiple aptitudes and refuse to play along with the government’s long con can escape the system and join the rebel Divergent Faction, which seems to be causing trouble, though none is specifically detailed in Divergent. So, that’s the troubling world of Divergent, where apparently the people stop counting to five or they just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that there are, de facto, seven Factions.

Beatrice Prior and her brother have come of age and they are to be tested to determine which Factions they will join. They come from the Abnegation faction, whose leader Marcus is mired in rumors of impropriety that threaten the Faction’s dominance over the other groups. When Beatrice is tested to be sure her aptitude is for the Abnegation caste, her tester is alarmed when she shows aptitudes for multiple Factions. She is a Divergent and her tester warns her not to rock the boat by revealing herself. The next day, the Prior family shocks the assembled population when Beatrice’s brother, Caleb, chooses to join the intellectual Erudites and Beatrice decides she’s going to be a Dauntless. She backs up her first bad decision by volunteering to be the first Dauntless initiate to jump blindly into a pit (which is presented as far less brave and far stupider than one might hope). Befriending Christina and changing her name to Tris, Beatrice joins the Dauntless and discovers it mostly means getting her ass handed to her by a bunch of people who are a lot more aggressive than she is.

Tris endures and she takes tutelage from the mysterious Dauntless trainer, Four, who is older but still age-appropriate to get her thunder rolling. As Tris slowly works her way out of the bottom of the leaderboard to remain in the Dauntless when the training is complete, she gets warnings from Four, her mother, and the leader of the Erudites, Jeanine, who all have an inkling that Tris does not truly belong with the Dauntless. Despite all that, Tris manages to pass her tests. She does so at the exact time that the Erudites finally make their move on the government. Using the Dauntless, who become mind-controlled pawns for the Erudites (believing they are being given a tracker), the society is menaced by Jeanine and her gun-toting thugs. Immune to the programming, Tris, Four, and the small cadre of Abnegation citizens they rescue must overthrow the killers and brilliant people in the city to restore order to society.

Divergent is one of those movies that is not unpleasant to watch, but the more one thinks about it, the more it completely falls apart. In fact, this is a painfully easy film to nitpick to death to the point where it would be hard for fans of the books to not sit and admit that the whole premise is so painfully flawed as to be ridiculous. The nitpicks range from the huge – if the purpose of the factions is to insure order and the natural flow of society, why is the aptitude test a subjective experience that is administered by a (fallible, corruptible) human being?! – to the easily-overlooked sensible details that make no rational sense as presented in the film; Abnegation citizens are supposedly so selfless that they are only allowed a few moments in front of a mirror each day. We see Beatrice use a spoon to look at herself; why aren’t all Abnegation citizens given silverware that is powercoated or enameled to be opaque instead of reflective, to avoid just such a cheat?! The first question, though, is problematic and it becomes more so as the movie goes on; various tests involve Four watching Tris’s thoughts and dreams and interpreting them (yea, psychoanalysis by a soldier!). These scenes work great on a metaphoric level, much like the cave scene in The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!), but they become incredibly problematic on a literal and filmmaking level (they kill the film’s pace each time they come up and foreshadow all of the film’s potentially audacious moments) each time they crop up after the initial test.

The concept of the factionless class makes no real sense either; what is the point of a caste system if you can flunk out of it?! Divergent is set in a world that does not make rational sense. That undermines the film from the outset.

On the character front, it is equally hard to get into Divergent. The moment the concept of Divergents are introduced, it seems obvious that Beatrice will end up as one of the special multitalented outcasts (farbeit for Hollywood to make a movie where the protagonist is an Untouchable with absolutely no marketable skills in their society). But Divergents seem like they would, rationally, be a super-caste, as opposed to outcasts and Tris and the other main character who utterly unsurprisingly turns out to be a Divergent as well are played as more-than instead of other-than, which makes one baffled about how this society has been maintained for a hundred years. The thing is, Tris is entirely unremarkable. She does not seem particularly smart, strong, compassionate or anything, save in one exercise where she illustrates three-dimensional thinking that makes a more powerful implicit anti-military statement than any other in the film (the militaristic Dauntless Faction is not made up of great thinkers, which means that even their most fearless generals and tacticians should have nothing in the way of tactical/strategic knowledge the way the Erudites would. So, yes, Veronica Roth and the writers who adapted her novel seem to be implying that “military intelligence” is a complete oxymoron in the world of Divergent).

So, Tris is boring, Four is generically good-looking and likes Tris for no particular reason, Caleb is supposedly smart but gulliable, and there are far more Divergents passing for members of factions than anyone knows. Throw in the generic sidekick, Chris, and the random psychopath lackey, Peter, and you have a film.

That said, the acting is fine (if unremarkable). It’s nice to see Ashley Judd getting work again and as Tris’s mother, she has the chance to remind viewers how well she can dominate a scene. Her character’s short arc is memorable only in that it gives Ashley Judd the uncommon opportunity to play a leader character. Miles Teller is good as Peter; there’s not a hint of his redneck hick character from Footloose (reviewed here!) in his performance of the angry and unsettling Dauntless soldier. But the leads are mediocre at best; Shailene Woodley has no real on-screen presence as Tris and Theo James could have been swapped out with virtually any other Hunky McGoodlooking actor of his generation without losing anything.

So, while the success of Divergent at the box office is already encouraging the studio to make the third book into two films and might just get some other films based on teen fantasy literature greenlit for production, it’s hard to make the argument that continuing the trend based on the strength of this film is actually a good thing.

For other works with Ray Stevenson, please check out my reviews of:
Thor: The Dark World
G.I. Joe: Retaliation
The Other Guys
The Book Of Eli


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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