Saturday, March 29, 2014

Divergent (2014) Review

Directed by
Neil Burger

            Imagine this: In a not-too-distant future, America has suffered through a mysterious war and has subsequently been divided into twelve five factions.  These factions are based on socio-economic class intellectual aptitude, and each year, young people who have come of age must battle each other in a fight to the death choose a faction to join, which will determine which other factions they will battle against in a fight to the death.   
            One fearless, plucky young woman, Katness Everdeen Beatrice Prior, is chosen among the ordinary masses.  She must fight in order to protect her sister brother and the rest of her family from some mysterious, dangerous government types.  Along the way, she endures a series of brutal physical trainings and discovers that she excels at bow and arrow knife throwing.  She has a love interest named Peeta Four, who must hide his admiration for her in order to himself survive.  All the while, the ominous President Snow Kate Winslet looks on, realizing that Katniss Beatrice has a special ability to resist conformity and lead a revolution against the evil people in charge.
            OK, so Divergent isn’t the world’s most original concept.  Like The Hunger Games, it adapts a popular Young Adult book series on to the big screen and opts to tell a dark, dystopian story that’s clearly too adult for Disney.  But let’s give it credit where credit is due – it does manage to be different than The Hunger Games in a few notable ways.  The Hunger Games holds an 84% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes; Divergent only has 40% approvalThe Hunger Games grossed an extraordinary $190 million in its opening week, while Divergent only grossed a modest $68 million.  And while The Hunger Games managed to entertain both fans of the book as well those who were uninitiated, Divergent is impaired because of numerous loose story ends, which may have been accounted for in the book series but remain underexamined over the course of the nearly two-and-a-half hour film. 
            The story.  On the surface, its most obvious similarities are to The Hunger Games, but viewers older than 15 years old will also recognize parallels to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Minority Report and Inception (there’s even a scene where two characters hook up diodes to each other’s brains and enter a dream world).  As Beatrice explains in the most jam-packed opening two minutes of exposition since the first scene of Casablanca, the survivors of the unnamed war now inhabit what remains of greater Chicago, and are divided into five factions: Erudition, Dauntless, Amity, Candor and Abnegation (one wonders whether the book series was published with the hopes of boosting teen readers’ verbal SAT scores).   Beatrice and her family belong to the Abnegation clan, which operate the government because of their selflessness and care for humanity.  As she reaches adulthood, she must take a personality exam which will advise her which faction to join.  Once she makes her choice, it is permanent, meaning that if she chooses to join a group other than Abnegation, she will likely never see her family again.
            But why?  What is the point of this seemingly unnecessary and burdensome dispersal of the small remaining human population?  Even after seeing this movie, I’m still not sure I can answer this question (and like a couple of the houses at the Hogwarts School, at least two of the factions seem entirely irrelevant to the story).  Of course, we didn’t have all the answers at the end of The Hunger Games either, but that was OK because the main thrust of the narrative was simple to understand – two dozen kids killing each other in front of giddy audiences.  But the lack of clarity sticks out in Divergent like a sore thumb.  Every time we begin to become involved with the story, nagging unresolved issues frustratingly come into the fray, and fail to get sufficiently answered.
            The best part of the movie is in the first hour, when Beatrice has decided to reject her family and its faction by joining Dauntless.  She does this because the personality test she takes indicates that she has characteristics of Dauntless, Abnegation and Erudite – in other words, her results indicate that she is a “divergent,” which we’re told is dangerous because – well, again we’re never really told why.  Oh well, maybe they’ll explain it more in the sequel.  So concealing her true test results, she joins Dauntless, which is supposed to be the military clan, but the ways in which they crawl up buildings and leap off trains make them seem more like delinquent hoodlums.  The movie shows rites of initiation, and Beatrice (who renames herself “Tris”) must learn to suppress her “divergent” psychological tendencies and instead channel bravery and gleefully approaching dangerous situations. 
            These training scenes work because, like the training sequences in Rocky, Hoosiers or any sports movie, we like to see characters gradually transform themselves into more confident and powerful people – especially when it involves sweat, knife-throwing, and an upbeat soundtrack.  But even here, basic logic interferes with the skillfulness of these scenes.  What are they training for?  Is this future society preparing for war?  The stakes are never fully established until midway through the film, when we learn that Erudition is attempting to launch a coup against Abnegation’s unilateral control of the government.  But even this explanation is unsatisfactory because Dauntless is never able to put up a fight after Erudition induces them with a magical serum (gotta love those magical serums!) in which they blindly follow the orders of the radical and deranged would-be revolutionaries (headed by Kate Winslet, looking uncomfortably close to Hilary Clinton and invoking the diabolic spirit of Jodie Foster in Elysium).  Meanwhile, all people who are divergent, like Tris, are sought after because . . . well, maybe someone who read the books can explain this better than I can.
            You’ve probably had enough of reading about this ludicrous plot (I’m sick of writing about it), but let me just point out the most ridiculous part of the story.  Remember how I said Tris has to take a personality exam?  Well, the person who administers the test (played by Nikita’s Maggie Q) is the one who tells her to conceal her result of “divergent.”  So the movie moves on and we don’t expect to ever see her again, until suddenly, midway through the film, she shows up with the Dauntless people as – get this – a tattoo artist!  That’s right, after her daytime job as a tester on behalf of the state authorities, she moonlights nights at an underground tattoo parlor, where she is conveniently able to remind Tris that she’s in mortal danger and must not tell anyone about her divergence.  What are the odds!  She must have taken the second job because those Abnegations in charge must be underpaying their valuable employees at the testing center.  And that must be the reason why the government is being overthrown, since the screenplay doesn’t offer any other clear explanation. 

            So let’s remove the logic factor for a second and consider whether this movie is worth seeing so long as you are able to completely and totally shut off all deductive reasoning for 140 minutes.  Admittedly, there are good things about it.  As Tris, Shailene Woodley is likable and convincing (although it never feels quite right seeing her run around with a shotgun in her arms) and she has good romantic rapport with her fellow Dauntless member, Four (played by Theo James, effectively able to combine Team Edward and Team Jacob into one analogous dreamboat).  As stated above, the training sequences are lively and the movie manages to move along at a brisk pace (save the climactic battle scenes at the end, which drag on far too long).  CGI Chicago looks great.  Fans of the book will undoubtedly enjoy it.  And even though the story is preposterous, there is something undeniably interesting about it (and it’s not like The Hunger Games is exactly Tolstoy).  Defenders of Divergent will say it is an underdeveloped introduction to a rich and complex world where your personality decides your fate; cynics will say that its appeal is a direct result of its close resemblance to better films in the already well-represented “dystopian future” genre.  But unfortunately for the film, in the internal battle between my heart and my brain, Amity is no match for Erudition. 

Rating: 2.5 stars

1 comment:

  1. Nice review Zach. It mainly suffers because of its direction which takes the novel and lazily translates it, making for an experience that, while entertaining, is forgettable and uninspired.