DIVERGENT Review: Hey Girl. Are You Wearing Dystopia? That’s Hot.
Every filmmaker faces a considerable hurdle when making a film set in a dystopian future. The easy part is creating a world that is bleak and hopeless and undesirable and completely depressing. The hard part is then populating this dreadful world with beautiful people. And you have to populate it with beautiful people because beautiful people sell movie tickets.
The trick for filmmakers, then, is to let their stars be beautiful – although less so at some points in the film than others – while ensuring the supporting cast requires a smaller vanity mirror. Then the holes are filled in with bit parts and walk-ons and extras that not only look like they don’t need a mirror, but perhaps that they haven’t even had a mirror for some time. It’s a matter of balance, and it’s critical to a film’s setting’s believability.
When the balance isn’t there, when the filmmaker populates his so-called depressing setting with people for whom depression is routinely thwarted by cheek bone structure, the only thing critical in the film is the flaw of such a construct. Such is the biggest flaw in director Neil Burger‘s Divergent, the latest entry in the Young Adult Dystopian Future sub-sub-genre, where the population looks less like the socially downtrodden and more like extras in an Abercrombie ad.
Chicago, some 100+ years in the future, is the only known city to have survived a great war that left the rest of the country wiped out. To protect its own, the city surrounded itself with a massive wall/fence and divided its population into five Factions, a societal structure that has been beneficial to the city’s survival.
- Amity: The Peaceful. They are also the farmers.
- Abnegation: The Selfless. They help those in need and act as the city’s governing body.
- Candor: The Honest. They make up the city’s justice system.
- Erudite: The Intelligent. They are the brains of the city.
- Dauntless: The Brave. They are the soldiers and protectors and the most fearless.
There is a sixth group – the Factionless – who are, for all intents and purposes, homeless.
When children are born they are automatically placed in their parents’ Faction, but when they are 16, they are tested to determine what Faction they truly belong in. However, they have the right to choose their own path and select another Faction in which to serve.
Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) belongs to Abnegation with her parents, Natalie and Andrew (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort). But when she is given her test by Tori (Maggie Q), she learns that she is not Abnegation, as expected, but instead she is Divergent, a rare combination of all the Factions. Because Divergents are so rare and so different and so superior to everyone else, they are feared. Tori tells Beatrice to lie about her test results and stick with Abnegation and speak not about being Divergent.
At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice opts to become a member of Dauntless, where she trains in all things combat-related, and finds a romantic interest in Four (Theo James), one of her instructors. But it wouldn’t be young adult dystopia without a political subplot. This time it involves the leader of Erudite, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who is making efforts to both rid the city of Divergents and overthrow Abnegation so that Erudite can rule Chicago.
Divergent is told in two halves (to call them “Acts” would suggest that they were intentionally designed as such). The first half starts out well, offering an efficient and sufficient explanation of the past fate and current structure of Chicago, as well as brief introductions of key characters. It also wastes no time with a needlessly long back-story, instead pivoting off its tight opening to proceed quickly to Beatrice’s test and the problems its results make for her. Twenty minutes in and things are looking good.
It’s once Beatrice chooses Dauntless and changes her name to Tris (you go, girl) that the film comes to a grinding halt. It spends about the next hour splitting its precious storytelling, character-building, plot-developing time between watching the young and pretty train and watching the young and pretty preen. Dystopia has never been so fun or looked so good. This is a core problem with the film – it’s worried more about its image than its substance.
There isn’t an active member of Dauntless older than 30. I say “active” because Mekhi Phifer – at age 39 – is the leader of Dauntless, but he is close to a cameo-grade player, coming in, barking a few things, and rolling out. Abnegation has older people: Judd, Goldwyn, and Ray Stevenson (whose character has some spoiler ties I won’t disclose) are 45, 53, and 49 respectively. Even Erudite’s Winslet, at 38, is made to look a little older than that. Other Factions, shown in passing, appear to have older members too. Even the homeless have them. So where are the “elders” of Dauntless? Nowhere. Why? Because old people are ugly.
The young and pretty Dauntless enter and exit scenes en masse with much running, jumping, tumbling, and climbing things, all the while looking oh-so-very in their leather jackets and hair gel. They live and train in a place called “The Pit,” which is sparse in a way that suggests Fred Flintstone moved into a SoHo loft, with toilets and showers that aren’t just unisex, but completely out in the open. This will allow all the hotties to watch all the other hotties lather, rinse, and repeat. Oh, and poop. It’s like the worst season of MTV’s Real World. Ever.
This openness is supposed to make Tris uncomfortable. She has spent her life living humbly and unassumingly, with her hair in a perpetual bun and her home’s only mirror hidden behind a password-protected door (to thwart vanity). On her first day in The Pit, when she changes into her standard-issue uni in front of God and Everybody, she is indeed self-conscious about being seen her in her underwear. But boy, when she wakes up on Day Two, her hair is sans bun and FABULOUSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS! She is ready for her close-up and surely a bottle of Pantene is somewhere nearby.
Yet with all of this prettiness and openness and youthful energy and physicality of combat training and glistening (sweating is not just TO the oldies, but FOR the oldies), the film is about as sexually inert as a hygiene film. The only romance that takes place is between Tris and Four (named as such because … oh who cares), and their chemistry is lifeless, perhaps muted by the fact that Tris has been reduced to a shampoo model and Four has confused flirting with brooding.
The rest of the members of Dauntless, with their gleaming smiles and flawless skin are better described by their two-dimensional tags: the Mean One (Jai Courtney), the Smarmy One (Miles Teller), and the Token One (sorry Zoe Kravitz). There are then other lower-tier characters, like the Snivelly One and the Goth One to round out the group.
Oh, and everyone gets tattoos. You know, because ink is cool.
Once all of this training – physical and mental, the latter being more interesting but less explored, in true poor filmmaking fashion – is complete, director Burger has little time to develop what could have been a compelling plot involving the politics of Chicago. Instead, he turns the second half of the film into a by-the-numbers action flick, and not a very good one. It’s all run-shoot-run-shoot-run-shoot, with blocking and editing choices that cheat the action. This holds true for every hand-to-hand combat scene in the film, too. In keeping the camera in endless, shaky motion and always close to the subjects fighting, Burger exposes his own inability to properly choreograph, stage, and film a basic fight scene.
There are a lot – A LOT – of other plot holes, inconsistencies, unanswered questions, and logic-defying decisions that I could point to, which would probably draw cries of “Don’t blame the director for the source material!” Too bad. I do. Screenwriters and directors modify the novels their films are based on all the time. Responsible filmmakers should fill holes along the way, not simply leave them there because “that’s what’s in the book.” My 12-year-old can confirm that Burger left book material out of the film, so surely he could have inserted something new, too, in the name of cohesiveness.
As far as I am concerned, this film is now the poster child for what is wrong with Hollywood’s Young Adult tentacle. This, like others before it and to come, isn’t the first film in a series – it’s a product pitch. It’s a movie in the most literal of terms, but one shoddily slapped together to quickly compete with other (better) properties, with the hopes of bilking its built-in audience of novel devotees out of their loyal dollars. Sadly, when the studios shake the shiny-pretty keys, the acolytes come blindly running. The only thing missing from my screening was a collectible giveaway, which should have been a Big Gulp cup, because that would have matched the glossy superficiality – and cavernous emptiness – of the film.
As much as Divergent is about a dystopian Chicago of the future, it is also about the dystopian Hollywood of today.