We open on a barren landscape with scattered patches of grass and bushes. Slowly, the camera begins to push forward, past a fishing boat rusted in the open space, then another ship, and the camera swerves and continues until it approaches the battered yet familiar skyline of Chicago. It’s then we realize we have been floating over the dried-up remains of Lake Michigan. These are the opening images of the film Divergent, out this week on DVD, and they are an inspired moment of science-fiction, dystopic film-making.
Almost everything I’ve read about Divergent focuses primarily on the political aspects of the story. Reading these pieces, I’ve learned a little bit about Veronica Roth’s politics and religious beliefs, and the libertarian or anti-intellectual themes, and how such elements have translated from the page to film. We’ve even discuss this all here at The Stake. These conversations, plus excitement over another sci-fi/action series starring a young woman (Shailene Woodley no less!) made me eager to see the film.
Woodley plus controversial political messaging and dystopic sci-fi, I had assumed, would make Divergent at least worth the effort. I didn’t expect The Hunger Games, but I figured it would be, at least, pretty good. But it is not so. As it turns out, the wasteland of Lake Michigan is much more interesting than the goings-on of the people of future Chicago.
Which isn’t to say Divergent doesn’t have it’s charms. Woodley has undeniable talent and even here she is eminently watchable despite how little she is given to do. Woodley faces off against Kate Winslet, who commits fully to such a stupid character enacting such an awful plan, that we cannot help but smile. These women can act! Too bad it’s wasted here. Divergent is so buried in cliches and borrowed sci-fi/fantasy plotting, I never had a chance to care about the characters attempting to spread the story’s message (and Divergent is a message movie). Instead, Roth and her adaptation team merely seem to insert her political message into an all too familiar sci-fi world.
Which looks like this: There was a war, long ago. Now, the people of Chicago have built a wall around the city, and survive inside. Society is divided into 5 Factions: Amity, Dauntless, Erudites, Candor and Abnegation. These factions define their members; each has a different job they provide to the whole of society (think the districts of The Hunger Games). So, Amity = happiness/Farming, Dauntless = bravery/police, Abnegation = selflessness/running government, Candor = Truth/lawyering and Erudite = studying things/being an insufferable know-it-all.
Your faction is your identity. When teens come of age, they take a brain-scan test which tells them what faction they are best suited for; sometimes a test result is inconclusive, or divergent, which means you do not fit into any faction. We are told that this is bad, and dangerous and leads to being killed. Tris (Shailene Woodley) is divergent.
After the test, the teens are able to choose of their own free will what faction they wish to join, even though 95% will be tested into and choose the faction of their birth. It’s the illusion of free will (or is supposed to be). They do this in a Choosing Ceremony (think sorting hat in Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games‘ reaping. Sorting/choosing teenagers in dramatic public ceremonies is fashionable right now).
Anyway. Tris was born into Abnegation, which is selflessness. They take care of the poor and run the government. The villains are the Erudites, those committed to academic pursuits who want to overthrow Abnegation and take over the government. Tris is divergent, but she chooses Dauntless for whatever reason that we never understand.
Dauntless are the police, so Tris goes to cop school with a bunch of other newbs who are supposed to learn to conquer fear. They are trained by a clean-cut, nice boy named Four, and also a really big meanie with imposing neck tattoos and facial piercings named Eric. At first Tris isn’t good at cop training but then she gets really good. Almost too good and people are like, why is Tris so good at this stuff what is she like a divergent or something? One kid tries to kill her because she’s better than he is at the part of cop training when you are inceptioned into your nightmares (later, Tris and Four inception together in his dreams; the dream world in Divergent is quite lovely, if totally unexplained).
Shortly after he throws knives at her face, Tris falls for Four (who will not pressure her into sex), and is maybe also divergent? Eventually the new Dauntless crew graduate training and are immediately subjected to mind-control drugs administered by the Erudites in their attempt to overthrow Abnegtion and take over the government. This plan will be thwarted by the two hero divergents who are not susceptible to mind-control, but not before a bunch of adults are murdered.
This all happens with little interest in motivation or pace or rhythm for storytelling. I felt like Four was whipping knives at me the whole time.
I watched Divergent because the social and political elements interested me, but what all this has to say about the state of American government, I will leave to others to determine. The more instructive lesson from Divergent is how easy it is to confuse an unoriginal, uninspired piece of film-making with a potentially revolutionary story that deserves to have it’s politics taken seriously in the first place.
This story is built not upon a rich political or cultural critique but middling, vague concerns about government that fail to cohere enough to make a successful film. As the plot progressed, what should have been the driving narrative elements, the Erudites desire to seize the government and the danger to Tris of being a divergent, got lost in the gravity of libertarian idealism Roth and the filmmakers forced in at the expense of their characters.
Perhaps Roth’s novel does achieve some measure of libertarian or political weight. I haven’t read the novel, but I saw echoes of Robert Heinlein’s great libertarian revolution sci-fi stories here, and with a more focused script, it’s not impossible to see how these things may have enriched this movie.
Instead, the writing maintains the illusion of political and philosophical depth (“the future belongs to those who know where they belong,” says Kate Winslet to the kids at the choosing ceremony). But underneath that illusion are cliches and under-developed characters, relationships, and emotions. Whenever we are supposed to feel something the writers pop their heads in in with a message moment to ensure audiences get the whatever point they want to make.When Tris and Four are going in for a first kiss, for example, Tris chimes in to say “I want to take things slow.” This is a perfectly reasonable attitude for a young woman to hold when getting involved with an older man. But they’ve not taken things anywhere, at all, and we’ve been given no reason to assume Tris would or would not say this. We’ve seen only longing glances and brushing touches passed between the two, which, as Twilight taught us, is no substitute for depth.
Likewise with the danger to Tris. When Tris and Four finally understand that the other is a divergent, I was not moved by their romantic inclination built upon danger they faced, nor did I see in Tris an opportunity for independence from government control. The only thought I had was: who cares if they’re divergents? No one but Kate Winlset actually seems to care. Four has been lollygagging around the Dauntless confines for years and plenty of people seem eager to help Tris survive.
We are in an era of young-adult sci-fi series adaptations, and Divergent situates itself alongside its closest peers, which are The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga, Harry Potter, and I suppose Andrew Niccol’s The Host. Two of these (Hunger Games and Harry Potter) are regarded generally as excellent young-adult sci-fi/fantasy films, hitting just the right note of adventurous fun and seriousness. They ask to be taken seriously as stories, and as films they earn it.
The other two (Host, Twilight) are easily recognizable as low-quality films. Bad movies. Divergent is not terrible like The Host, but perhaps more importantly, it is not interesting like The Host, either. Nor is Divergent failed camp, overwrought with gooey nonsense like Twilight. Which means it also lacks the trashy fun and absurdity of the last two Twilight films.
Divergent is just somewhere in between. It asks audiences to take its message seriously, and by doing so, makes itself utterly forgettable.