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Entries in Divergent [2014] (1)

Wednesday
Mar262014

Divergent (2014)

The Hungrier Games

Sad, but true: we live in the age of The Hunger Games. The smash young-adult novel phenomenon morphed into a mega-watt movie franchise, fueled by an Oscar-winning star and a marketing juggernaut that simply wouldn't be denied. Like Harry Potter before it, originality and quality storytelling took a back seat to visual pageantry and a devotion to extending the revenue stream at all costs (How else to explain a seven-picture series that, at most, should have stopped at four?). I'm convinced there are at least a dozen writers in California alone capable of containing the third Hunger Games book within one film, instead of two--but then what would Lionsgate do for a tentpole that quarter?

And don't get me started on Twilight.

My beef with these movies isn't that they're aimed at a demographic of which I'm not a part, or that they're brazenly unoriginal.* They're just plain boring, and are so drawn out that any spark of imagination is extinguished by the time we get to the fourth or fifth Battle that will Change Everything...Forever. Watching the trailer for Divergent, I got that sinking feeling again, as the YA-hit equation played out across the screen:

Dystopian Future + Unwitting "Chosen" Girl ÷ Brooding Hot Guy x Recognizable Elder Cast = $$$

Imagine my surprise when, after sitting through roughly two-and-a-half hours of a film I'd dreaded, I emerged rejuvenated and eager to see it again. Director Neil Burger and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor (working from Veronica Roth's novel) really have something here, and it'll be interesting to see if Divergent can step out from The Hunger Games' shadow and into the wider pop consciousness. Or if it even needs to.

The movie follows Tris (Shailene Woodley), a teenage member of the Abnegation faction--a class of humble peacemakers who emerged as one of five distinct ruling groups, following the war that nearly eradicated humanity. It's not clear if these systems exist outside the gated city of Chicago, beyond which, we're told, is a wasteland full of vague dangers that must be guarded against. None of that matters to Tris, anyway: she's preparing for the test of a lifetime. At a certain age, all children must undergo a series of drug-induced mental challenges that determines the true nature of their character. Based on the results, they're incentivized to join either the impartials (Abnegation), the intellectuals (Erudite), the soldiers (Dauntless), the farmers (Amity), or the lawmakers (Candor).

As you might imagine from the title (or the genre), Tris' test results are inconclusive. She lands in multiple categories, and is labeled "Divergent". That's not a good thing, and Tris hides her results from everyone, lest she be cast out among the starving Factionless--or worse yet, according to legend, killed immediately. During selection, she leaves Abnegation behind and joins Dauntless, a gang of fear-defying maniacs who train in all manner of combat to keep the city safe from...something. Here, Tris meets her Potter gang: the sassy best friend (Zoe Kravitz); the dopey, reliable bud (Ben Lloyd-Hughes); the dangerously insecure one (Christian Madsen); and the rich, entitled asshole (Miles Teller). She also meets, of course, a smoldering hot guy named Four (Theo James), who is (initially) unattainable, thanks to his role as instructor.

Much of the film consists of a series of training exercises, interspersed with political intrigue, and rounded out by the launch of a revolution. Sound familiar? Sure, but many things separate Divergent from its natural point of comparison.

For starters, the acting is uniformly top-notch. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence is the bees knees, but Woodley paints a truly inspiring, nuanced portrait of a young girl coming into her own, mentally, physically, and emotionally. She's never had an inkling of being a warrioress, and honestly has no taste for rocking the boat, on a grand scale. Woodley's Tris is likable, not bad-ass (at the outset); she laughs, she cries, she's resourceful, and has a tremendous sense of gratitude, humility, and wonder about her that can manifest as insecurity. By film's end, even after she's emerged as a heroic rebel (spoiler?), we watch her exit the picture with a conquering spirit of curiosity, not just conquering.

As her inevitable love interest, James is a major discovery. Four is just enough of a walled-off jerk at the outset to let his students know who's in charge, and even as he softens towards Tris throughout the movie, he comes off as an adult--no puppy eyes or weepy, bullshit professions of destiny. He and Tris don't get together until near the very end, and even then they're teammates first and potential lovers second. Unlike most of the pretty-boy leads in movies such as this, James has real magnetism and (from what I can tell) chops. I can see why he was chosen to do the film's heavy charisma lifting, opposite a powerhouse like Woodley.**

I also have to give it up for the supporting cast, who are compelling and (thanks to the up-for-anything script) highly expendable. Courtney, in particular, is a ruthless cauldron of menace, and he contrasts beautifully with the strict but understanding Four. If these two had played Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi, training and turning Jedi for three movies, we might have collectively given a damn about the Star Wars prequels. As Tris' bestie, Christina, Kravitz is very believable as a loudmouth who gets knocked down several pegs without becoming petulant and bounces back as one of the top-ranked students in her class.

The aforementioned adult roles aren't just filled with name actors hoping to get in on the ground floor of some sweet franchise cash (okay, Kate Winslet walks the line as the cold, calculating Ruler of Everything). In particular, Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd play up the realism as Tris' parents. They come off as wise, hard-working, and afraid for their kids; both actors perform as if they're working with Serious Material, which helps make the genre's most thankless roles into crucial ones here.

Divergent's second strength is its use of relatable teen metaphors. Yes, the divvying up of society into factions is an obvious allegory for high school (the nerds, the jocks, the politicians, the hippies, the class clowns--and the rabble that fall through the cracks), but where The Hunger Games went out of its way to paint a garish cartoon of media, supported by an oppressive caste system, Divergent focuses inward. For the children of this society, school is literally a microcosm of adulthood, marked by an explicit pressure to find one's place in the world--lest the whole system collapse. This is the fictional-universe equivalent of one's test scores literally following them into adulthood--and Tris' quest to debunk that myth. The filmmakers understand the sinister nature of control, and toy with it beautifully.

The last advantage Divergent has over The Hunger Games is its prevailing sense of mystery. From the get-go, we know that Katniss Everdeen is destined to uncover political corruption and use the media to bring down the system. The cartoon villains are established early on, and so we must wait approximately eight hours for a resolution most of us can (presumably) work out in eight seconds. In Divergent's case, the system is, again, a microcosm. There's something waiting outside the Windy City's walls, something scary that neither Tris, her classmates, nor, frankly, most of the people living in Chicago, seem to understand--thanks to a century of unquestioning social recycling.

Tris "graduates" at the end of this picture, and heads off for places unknown--not just to her but, more importantly, to us. There are clues planted throughout the movie as to what caused the catastrophic war. The greatest may be the fact that many of Chicago's buildings are still standing; some have weird, gaping holes blasted through them, so the city (apparently) didn't suffer a nuclear attack. Maybe the Big Bad will be revealed to be aliens, or perhaps Divergent is what the people in The Hunger Games' districts watch on the other channels. Whatever the case, Roth and those adapting her work have created a specific, interesting story that lends itself to being sequelized, but not desperately so.

My two beefs with the film are very minor. First, the PG-13 violence is maddeningly tame. Given broadcast television's increasingly lax standards, and the fact that the last Twilight film featured multiple beheadings, am I really to believe that teens need to be protected from on-screen gun battles? There are as many awkward cuts in the climactic shoot-out as there are bullets fired, and I kept hoping for an unrated director's cut blu-ray--you know, for adults.

The second problem is spoilerific, so I'll dance around it for the sake of anyone who's made it this far (bless your heart). There's a tremendously acted death scene at the tail end of a climactic fight, which made me well up a bit. Unfortunately, another major character dies about five minutes later, and we're expected to bear that weight just as intensely a second time. It doesn't work, especially in the context of the editing problem I just mentioned.

In the end, I stand by Divergent as the definitive young-adult action film of our era. The filmmakers make their points of reference clear, but take a Tarantino-like approach to expanding on what has come before and forging their own, sharp identity. By being smart, engaging, and having real stakes within the confines of the smaller story it wants to tell, the movie also avoids many of the genre's most annoying traps (such as the central-character love triangle). Though Divergent's bigger picture remains to be seen by those of us who haven't read the source material, you can count me among the "Interested" faction.

*I won't rehash the old arguments that Harry Potter is a direct descendant of DC's Books of Magic, or that The Hunger Games is simply Battle Royale, Jr. As BoM author Neil Gaiman said on the issue of concept cherry-picking, "It's not the ideas, it's what you do with them that matters." Both film series fail on that count, too.

**If you doubt Woodley's bona fides, check out her amazing turn in The Spectacular Now--perhaps the decade's prize gem of honest understatement (also starring Miles Teller).