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Sunday
Mar232014

Review: Divergent

This review originally appeared in my column at Towleroad

Erudite. Dauntless. Abnegation. Amity. Candor. Doesn't have quite the same ring as "Charisma. Uniqueness. Nerve and Talent" does it? But it's with the awkwardly titled five factions of DIVERGENT's world that we begin. In some future Utopia young citizens must choose their faction (a fancy word for tribe) on their 18th birthday after taking an aptitude test that reveals where they truly belong. They have the option of any faction but most, we are led to believe, choose either the tribe they grew up in or the tribe of their aptitude and these are often the same. Nature vs. Nurture and all that, you know.

Our heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley) lives with her parents in Abnegation, the "selfless" tribe that runs the government -- your first clue that this is total science fiction! They also feed the homeless (aka the "factionless"), dress like monochromatic fashion-forward Amish and eschew mirrors. Beatrice is played by Shailene Woodley and her parents are Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) - our first clue that this is actually a Dystopia*; how long could any of them survive without mirrors?

Tris is ready to jump and we continue after ours...

The trouble begins when Tris takes her aptitude test which is essentially a series of drug-fueled hallucinations. Her results are inconclusive. She is "Divergent" (uh oh) scoring in Dauntless (the warrior faction), Candor (the honest tribe who we spend no time with. In the sequels perhaps?) and her original tribe Abnegation. The test is administered by Plot Convenient Expositionist (not her real name) played by Maggie Q. She's Dauntless's tattoo artist but also works in this government capacity for reasons of because. She's everywhere! She warns Beatrice that she must tell no one of the test results for her own safety. Divergents are being hunted because they threaten the status quo.

 

I'd like to say "then all hell breaks loose" but because this is the first in a trilogy (or quadrilogy if it's successful?) these stories are always padded. I'm still trying to work out why we spend any time with Beatrice's brother, for example, who seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the plot that isn't amply covered in other ways. Beatrice makes her Faction Choice, an event which is played for as much suspense as it can muster, an impressive amount actually, considering all the foreshadowing about where her heart truly lies. It lacks the gut punch of The Reaping, the similar kick-off plot point in Hunger Games, that beloved YA franchise to which Divergent, must do battle in the public imagination. But I vastly preferred it to the similar much stupider "Sorting Hat" sequence in Harry Potter where all the bad guys go to Slytherin and all the heroes go to Gryffindor and all the extras go to the other places.

Divergent, unlike that earlier phenomenon, understands that nobody is just one thing. That's the whole point of it really. Aren't we all divergent? The best hope for Divergent as a franchise is that it continues to play up these shades of gray and the multi-faceted aspects of human nature. Though we only spend time with three factions (Dauntless, Erudite, and Abnegation) each are revealed to have both good and bad people among them and, more impressively, characters that might tilt back and forth with the wind. But, since Hollywood's anti-intellectualism never rests, you already know that Erudite (the "intelligent" faction) is where we will find our master villain. She's embodied by Kate Winslet, giving icy blond bureaucrat realness. We are cued to distrust her from her first appearance. Winslet is fine if nothing more in basically the same role that Jodie Foster butchered in Elysium.

 

The bulk of the movie's two hours and twenty minutes is Tris's training in her faction. This training also involves drug-fueled hallucinations wherein she must face her greatest fear, which appears to be birds so she's been watching too much Hitchcock. All these virtual scenes, wherein the heroine vocalizes "this is not real", lend the movie a curious weightlessness -- if it's not real for her can it ever be real for us?. But here, too, a dichotomy. Despite that weightlessness and the disadvantage of a far less instantly primal and bloody premise, Divergent actually does a better job than The Hunger Games of making its deaths (and potential deaths) real both for the audience and for the heroine. It's far more believable in this one way than Katniss's eternal innocence in her gladiator games.

Despite strong moments sprinkled about, we're killing time. We wait for our heroine to break her silence and make a move and, thus, a movie. Divergent "The Pilot" finds its spiritual twin in its own "sex" scene. Tris finally admits her feelings for her mysteriously named trainer "Four" after he removes his shirt -- Theo James' body will do that to you. Four shows her his tattoo of the five factions so he's doing a very bad job of hiding his own Divergency since this tribe has communal bathrooms and bedrooms. Beatrice and Four begin passionately kissing, but just as things are heating up, she puts on the breaks.

 

I don't want to move too fast." 

She whispers softly but firmly. You can practically hear the screenwriter, director and executive producers mouthing it along with her. There's more money to be made if your franchise moves at a snail's pace. 'Hey, let's split the final book in half!' 

* All Utopias in science fiction are actually Dystopias in disguise. And Dystopias are also actually Dystopias so basically there's no hope for the human race. Cheers!

Grade: C+
Oscar Chances: If The Hunger Games can't even manage one in the tech arenas, that's a no.

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Reader Comments (8)

I read the first two books of the trilogy, and they are reasonably well written and entertaining (a solid B- the first one, and a C+ the second one). The universe of Divergent, through the books, is glossy and highly allegorical, and the iconography of each tribe is rich and imaginative. The books even came with a quiz in order to know what faction do you belong to (my results sent me conclusively to AMITY!). I haven't watched the movie yet; however, according to the review, it seems that the approach to sex is the same as in the books. Actually, this is the worst aspect of the Divergent series, when it starts focusing on the relationship between Four and Tris, it refuses the sexual nature of both by presenting an obsolete vignette of Victorian vulgarity.

OFF TOPIC 1: Please Nathaniel write about Uma's monologue in "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1".

OFF TOPIC 2: Uma Thurman in "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" deserves Stinky-Lulu supporting actress editorial treatment. Just saying.

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLuigi De Angelis

I would disagree that you feel the deaths more here than in Hunger Games. I dont think the film gave any breathing room to the three main deaths in the film. Most of the emotional moments seemed rushed. The last book in the Divergent series is terrible, and not of the "some like Mockingjay, some don't" variety. The writing, characterizations, plot...it's the kind of book you finish just because you made it through the other two. They even borrow the Twilight "change the narrator every chapter" beat for the last one. I really hope they keep it a trilogy.

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJtagliere

I went back and read the earlier reviews for the first Hunger Games film and I'm surprised how well received that one was, and how this is getting skewered by most critics. I thought this did a better job of setting up its dystopian universe than the first Hunger Games film did. I guess this suffers from too much "it's a poor copy of Hunger Games" syndrome.

I liked the cast, and if there is one advantage this movie has over Twilight and Hunger Games....it's that the male and female leads actually have sexual chemistry. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson have absolutely none of that, and I won't even bother to talk about Stewart and Pattinson.

I like Shailene Woodley and I'm liking her choice of roles lately. I wonder if they'll recast the Mary Jane role in the Spiderman movies, if Divergent turns out to be a hit and shooting schedule becomes a problem.

I don't look forward to the last films in both trilogies (Hunger Games and Divergent) because the final books of each were really very poor. I would give a slight advantage to Veronica Roth because of the ending of Allegiant, but otherwise both Mockingjay and Allegiant are blah books.

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMel

Mel, Katniss doesn't have any feelings for Peeta in the first Hunger Games. It's all for show. Late in Catching Fire she begins to care for him as more than a friend. Their characters are never supposed to have any sexual chemistry. There isn't even a sex scene.

March 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoJo

God SO true about the stupid sorting hat in Harry Potter and how Katniss is kept innocent despite all the killing.

March 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJase

Jojo, I read the books, and in the cave in the first Hunger Games, Katniss was supposed to have felt something already. And in Catching Fire, her feelings were confirmed when they kissed on the beach. However, those feelings were never translated onscreen because the two leads just don't have any sort of romantic chemistry (maybe sexual chemistry is too strong a term). They are more like brother and sister.

Which reminds me of another thing that's relatively refreshing about Divergent: no love triangles! At least none that drags on even when we know who will end up together in the end anyway.

March 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMel

I read the first book on a lark (a fun enough read though sweet mercy, the writing quality makes The Hunger Games' Suzanne Collins read like Toni effing Morrison), but oh my goodness they get so bad. SO BAD YOU GUYS.

I'm going to see this, and I'm probably going to enjoy it, but it sounds like they didn't manage to successfully elevate the admittedly thin source material, which makes me VERY concerned about the sequels. When the books get irreedeemably terrible, the movies are going to need to do something better or we're all going to be in for a brutally tedious franchise.

I rather fear for Shailene Woodley, who I like-- I don't want to see her tied to something so ambivalently received by critics because it makes just enough money to keep going.

March 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Uma in NYMPHO is absolutely fab....speaking about supporting actresses...what happened to 2003 supporting actress smackdown? did I miss it?

March 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

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