Silver Screen: Divergent *1/2
It makes sense that so many popular young-adult novels— The Hunger Games series, The Host, and now Divergent— feature a post-apocalyptic setting. To a teenager everything seems like the end of the world. The extremity of the circumstances validates all the emotional hyperbole.
Divergent’s apocalypse will seem awfully familiar to those who’ve seen The Hunger Games, which this poorly conceived sci-fi thriller emulates at every turn like a little sister stealing clothes and CDs from an older, more confident sibling. It’s all but impossible not to compare the two when Divergent sticks so closely to the template established by its more popular predecessor.
Decades ago, a massive, vaguely explicated civil war left America decimated and the surviving cities isolated. An oppressive government rose up to install an authoritarian system of control, ostensibly to protect the citizens from mysterious outside forces that may or may not exist, and only one brave girl can uncover the corruption and inspire an uprising.
The heroine here is Tris (Shailene Woodley), and she and her fellow survivors live in the bombed-out husk of Chicago. As far as they know, Chicago is the last surviving outpost of humanity. To keep the peace, society has divided itself into five factions, each with a specialized function: the intelligent bureaucrats of Erudite, the brave soldiers of Dauntless, the communicators of Candor, the hippie farmers of Amity, and the selfless civil servants of Abnegation. (Some of these five descriptors are nouns and some are adjectives, which leads me to think there should be a sixth group, Linguistic Coherence.)
When they come of age, the children of this society are given an all-important, one-step test that determines what faction they will live in for the remainder of their lives. Inexplicably, despite the test results, they are allowed to then choose whichever faction best suits them. But whatever group they choose, they must choose it wisely, for if they are kicked out they become Factionless, homeless wanderers left to survive on the charity of the Abnegation clan.
The worst thing a young person in this implausible society can be is Divergent, which means they show traits of multiple clans. Those who cannot be classified are a threat to the system and must be expunged. That’s the fate of our girl Tris, whose big burden is that she’s good at everything. Tris hides her test results and joins the Dauntless crew, but while undergoing rigorous training under the tutelage of the super-hunky Four (Theo James), she uncovers a plot by Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) to unseat the current leadership and remake the government in her faction’s own image.
Divergent’s needlessly complicated mythology makes some basic sense as a metaphor. The target teen audience knows something about taking big, government-sanctioned tests that are supposed to point them toward the collegiate career training that will determine the course of the rest of their lives. As anything other than a metaphor, however, the concept just doesn’t hold water. Exactly who came up with this rigid, improbable system of government— the movie is extremely stingy with details and backstory— and how exactly is dividing society into five separate factions who aren’t allowed to interact supposed to maintain peace? (How often have you encountered the word “factions” without the modifier “warring”?)
Even granting the story’s more egregious leaps in logic, Divergent has no internal coherence. If the testing is so important, why are kids allowed to choose factions regardless of the outcome? More importantly, why is the test administered by a seemingly random citizen? (In Tris’s case, her proctor is a rebellious tattoo artist played by Maggie Q.) Why does the test produce no quantifiable data or verifiable records? Why would one Divergent character, who goes to great lengths to hide the truth of his status, sport a full back tattoo advertising his allegiance to all five factions?
The concept collapses entirely late in the film when all the Dauntless soldiers are implanted with mind-control devices that don’t work on Divergents— which would suggest there’s actual physiological proof that the faction system is valid and scientifically sound. It’s one among a slew of instances of the movie trying to cover up a lack of basic storytelling coherence with shoddy sci-fi logic. This is, after all, the same movie in which the government can construct a massively fortified wall around the entire city of Chicago, yet cannot patch up the broken skyscrapers, and where the government can look inside people’s minds using various unexplained “serums” yet has no security cameras to spot actual subterfuge.
As lazily and hastily conceived as this first in a trilogy of films seems, it’s at least competently executed. Director Neil Burger gives the film a polished if undistinguished aesthetic and keeps the pace quick enough that the movie is never as boring as it is baffling. Woodley is badly miscast but talented enough to hide the fact, at least until the improbable action sequences when her skinny-limbed, coltish body becomes a lethal weapon through mysteries of physics. She does her best to anchor a movie with a better-than-average supporting cast (Winslet, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Mekhi Phifer, Ray Stevenson) struggling to bring definition to an overstuffed ensemble of one-note characters.
Maybe it would be easier to care about the fate of Tris’s mother (Ashley Judd) or her best friend (Zoë Kravitz) if they received more than a perfunctory minute or two of screentime between the endless exposition laying out the needlessly complex rules the movie plans to break anyway, like a little kid inventing a game as he goes along.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.