This week finally saw the release of the highly anticipated, much talked about, long-awaited big screen adaptation of the smash hit YA novel, “Divergent.” At least, that’s the way the studio is presenting it. Personally, I’d never heard of “Divergent” until I started seeing posters a few months ago. Soon after, I started seeing articles, but none that really conveyed why it was supposed to be such a big deal. My theory – Summit, the studio that made a mint off “Twilight,” is desperate for another long-running series. What’s the best way to get another “Twilight” or “Hunger Games?” Fake it. Just behave as though “Divergent” is already a massive hit, and fool audiences into coming out in droves. Will that actually work? Time will tell.
“Divergent” is both better and far worse than I thought it would be. I was afraid, based on the trailers, that it would be a complicated bore, a pale imitator of “The Hunger Games” and little else. As it turns out, the first half of the film is fairly entertaining – not great, but it held my attention. That, combined with high production values and likable actors would seem to make for a decent film. What I didn’t anticipate was how completely nonsensical the basic plot would be. Not the active plot, so much – there’s a heroine, she’s different, she’s on the run, boiler plate dystopian adventure story. But the larger premise of the story is total rubbish. The basic idea goes like this: in some moderately far-flung future, the residents of Chicago have holed up in the city proper after the rest of society was destroyed in some kind of massive war. The elders built a giant wall, of sorts, to keep out some unnamed evil, and within the confines of said wall, society has been strictly regimented. People are divided into factions, based on personality traits, and those divisions are absolute. “Faction before blood!” is the oft-heard refrain. The factions, named after a rousing evening leafing through Roget’s Thesaurus, are Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, Candor, and Abnegation. In essence, that’s bravery, smarts, kindness, honesty, and selflessness. In theory, based on these traits, all the different jobs required to run a society can be divided up this way. For example, Amity are the farmers. I’m not sure what makes farmers nicer than anyone else, but ok. Dauntless are the police/army, natch. Abnegation feed the poor and handle the distribution of the food – they’re also the government. I’m not sure what Candor and Erudite do – lawyers and scientists, I guess. In the description montage they were shown hanging around in white rooms arguing or looking through microscopes, respectively. The idea behind all this is that human nature is evil and must be purged by strict adherence to a single trait (why? how? Stop – questions will be answered later. No they won’t.) When children reach a certain age – 18, I guess, they undergo a kind of test that is supposed to determine which faction they belong to. Of course, having been born into a faction, they belong to one already, but now it’s time to determine who’s really in there. The test tells you where you belong, but then you’re allowed to pick any faction you want, so I’m not sure what the point of the test was. For our purposes, however, the test serves as a vehicle to introduce the concept of divergence, a character trait which describes our young hero, Beatrice. Divergence is described as some kind of fundamental physical difference, like a mind power or something, but in practice it just means Beatrice has a little of all the traits. This makes her a danger to the system (how? why? Stop asking questions or you’ll be labeled divergent!) and so she must hide her shame. Born in Abnegation, she jumps ship on her choosing day and joins Dauntless. I’m not sure why everyone doesn’t join Dauntless – there’s no crime and no one has approached the wall (really just a massive collection of creaky fire-escapes on scaffolding), which these brave souls are tasked with protecting, in years. All the Dauntless do all day is play fight and run around the city like a parkour convention, climbing up the sides of buildings and jumping off moving trains. Dauntless is tough, however, because if you practice your little heart out but still aren’t tough enough, they throw you out and you become factionless. So much for faction before blood. You’d think the rejects from Dauntless (would they be called Daunted?) could just go join a less rigorous faction, say Erudite where you stand around in sharp suits looking smart all day, but that’s not how it works. I’m assuming the other factions have a way to kick people out, too, but that’s never described.
I realize I’ve described almost nothing of the action, but really, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Beatrice, or Tris, for short, has to hide her true nature. She gets help from hunky Four (yes, that’s his name) and endures probing looks from the Erudite elite, always on the lookout for Divergents. The part of the movie where Tris is training and rising up the ranks of Dauntless are pretty enjoyable, as long as you don’t think too hard about the greater ramifications of the plot. As things progress, however, it gets sillier and sillier, until you begin to wonder how the whole project got picked up in the first place. There are better YA series out there, surely. Or maybe the books are better. But as far as the film goes, it’s as if the entire society is all iconography and no substance. Yes, the logos for each faction are cool, and certainly make nifty tattoos, but do nothing to explain how a society could ever function in this divided way. It does because the writers say it does, I guess.
The studio spent a lot of money on “Divergent,” and its two sequels are already in pre-production, so confidence is obviously high. The actors are fine, particularly Shailene Woodley, who, as Tris may not able to hold a candle to Katniss Everdeen, beats the heck out of mopey Bella. The production values are very nice, but the basic structure might as well have been written by a ten-year old. I didn’t hate the movie while I watched it – I was even entertained, especially early on, but the longer I’ve had to reflect, the more irritated I’ve become. I don’t really recommend the movie, but if you decide to go anyway, boy, have I got questions for you.
“Divergent” is rated PG-13 for violence and mature themes.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.