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Non-Review Review: Divergent

As far as adaptations of popular young adult novels go, Divergent lacks the strong charismatic lead of The Hunger Games or even the campy pleasure of The Mortal Instruments. Working with a premise that feels like it would have made for a delightfully cheesy piece of sixties socially-conscious science-fiction, Divergent proceeds to take absolutely everything far too seriously. Cliché moments play to an over-the-top soundtrack, terrible dialogue is delivered with earnest profundity, the movie failing to take any joy in anything that it does.

There’s a sense of cynicism in Divergent, with the sequels already mapped out, and the studio committed to their release. The result is a movie that never feels compelled to rush, instead spending most of its runtime spinning its wheels, covering familiar ground. It’s over-long and poorly paced, with the first two acts often feeling like a hyper-extended training montage, meaning that by the time anything starts happening the audience can’t wait for it to end. The result is a heavy-handed and over-cooked attempt at social commentary, one reeking of anti-intellectualism and simplistic pandering.

Don't worry, her training covers this...

Don’t worry, her training covers this…

There are moments when it seems like Divergent might work. It certain looks great. Neil Burger is a director with a very kinetic style. He’s fond of sweeping camera work and movement. There’s a wonderful moment, early in Divergent, where one of the five (or six, depending on you count) social groups that comprise this dystopia come rolling into town. Riding a modified elevated train that seems to keep circling the decaying and collapsed city, our young soldiers spring on to the street in their black leather and red undershirts – looking less like a post-apocalyptic army and more like a backing troupe from a college production of Grease.

These young performers arrive with gusto, as if hoping to audition for a hot and trendy remake of The Warriors, or a grittier reboot of West Side Story. They prance and jump and roll; all that’s missing are the trusty flick knives and the rhyming clicking of their fingers. Later, retreating back to the edge of the city, they leap and bound over the railway supports and struts as if navigating an urban jungle – an infectious energy to their movement. They feel decidedly retro, as if a throwback to fears about feral youths during the late fifties.

Leap of faith...

Leap of faith…

Indeed, the entire premise of Divergent feels like it came from a pulpy old science-fiction film. In the wake of a horrific war, society has rebuilt itself along rigid class lines. There are five clans that each fulfil important social functions. There are the educated (the lawyers and the scientists), the soldiers, the debaters, the farmers and the social workers. Each of these fantastic castes work and act in the most deliciously stereotypical fashion. Cue shots of blissful farmers toiling in wide open fields, juxtaposed with clinical scientists making notes and acting secretively.

The male members of the educated caste all seem to wear three-piece suits, with all members of the group colour-coded blue. The farmers and social workers wear more modest fashion. The soldiers seem to order their black and red combos in bulk. It’s all very absurd, with the idea that everybody is confined to a particular caste for life – at which point they are sculpted into an archetypal representation of that profession. It’s like one of the more cliché planets of the week from the classic Star Trek, with the audience spending most of the movie waiting for Kirk to appear and teach these people the meaning of the Earth term “love.”

You can call him Al...

You can call him Al…

It is a delightfully absurd premise, and Divergent initially seems like it could be a great deal of fun. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that the movie is taking absolutely everything seriously. This isn’t meant to be a fun allegory for broad ideas – this is a very important film about very important stuff. The music soars, the actors grimace, trite sentiments are offered to po-faced certainty. This isn’t a post-apocalyptic adventure, this is an earnest treatise. Occasionally, extended sequences about the beauty of young adult life at the end of the world are set to generic pop songs sampled to provide a marketable soundtrack.

Very quickly, it becomes clear how Divergent tells the good guys from the bad guys. The bad guys are the educated caste – the Erudite. The farmers and social workers are practically angelic. The farmers are known as “the Amity”, while the other castes make fun of the social workers for how selfless they are. (Indeed, the group is known as “the Selfless”, just in case the audience doesn’t get the memo.) They give food to people in need, help to run the city’s social institution and even regulate the use of mirrors, as if to control their own vanity.

"Trust me, when I threw my red wash in with everybody else's black wash, I NEVER heard the end of it."

“Trust me, guys, when I threw my red wash in with everybody else’s black wash, I NEVER heard the end of it.”

In contrast, all the doctors and the lawyers are plotting to take over the world and impose their own horrific “order” on things. “I think human nature is the enemy,” our evil lawyer villain calmly states, as if the writers took every cliché about evil lawyers and decided to play it entirely straight. Those pesky lawyers try to usurp authority over the society, while those despicable scientists act as silent (but willing) accomplices. Meanwhile, the film goes out of the way to make the soldier caste innocent in this oppression, tools in a game that they don’t understand.

All of this has a deeply unpleasant reactionary whiff to it. While the film seems to make the point that instituting a class structure across society is a very bad thing; the film argues that trying to categorise people into certain groups and make them conform to generic archetypes is restrictive and oppressive. That’s a stock moral that generally works quite well – there’s a reason “be yourself” is such a popular theme in young adult fiction. At the same time, the movie then suggests that there are certain classes of people who are just inherently evil.

Punching about its weight?

Punching about its weight?

There’s something very anti-intellectual about all this. It seems to suggest that all those people with academic qualifications and extensive educations are untrustworthy; the only people you can really trust are the salt-of-the-earth types. The people who work the land or toil in obscurity as cynical intellectuals gossip and condescend to them. It feels a tad patronising, all the more unsettling because it’s delivered with such a straight face.

Divergent wallows in its own self-importance. The movie is intended as the first in the series. With that in mind, the film devotes nearly two hours to our lead character’s basic training routine. These scenes could easily have been trimmed to a couple of montages; even half-an-hour would have been excessive. Instead, there’s a sense that movie doesn’t want to cover too much ground too fast. This means that we get a two-and-a-half-hour film of material that really should eat up an hour at most.

Climbing to new heights?

Climbing to new heights?

While engaged in her training, our heroine encounters all the stock tropes and conventions we’ve come to expect from these sorts of stories. There’s the sociopathic military instructor bully to mask his own insufficiencies. The movie falls into a familiar pattern, with our mean-spirited drill instructor picking a weak and exhausted student, asking them a suspiciously leading question and then seeking to make a cruel example of them.

In contrast, there’s the wounded veteran, the character with an aloof exterior whose initial rebukes hide a pure heart and good intention. He starts out cold and removed, but who eventually thaws to our plucky heroine. The movie awkwardly pitches this character as a would-be love interest, which feels a little tone-deaf. Actor Theo James is seven years older than his co-star Shailene Woodley, and the movie increases the discomfort by suggesting Woodley is playing a teenager while James acts as her instructor. The film plays this courtship with disturbing earnest, lots of lingering looks and fleeting touches.

Everything is on track...

Everything is on track…

And then there’s Shailene Woodley. Woodley is functional as a protagonist. She works quite well in the smaller character moments. However, she lacks the raw charisma of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, and the movie gives her some truly woeful monologues that were clearly intended to sound profound, but just feel awkward. The rest of the cast is decidedly bland, although Kate Winslet relishes the opportunity to ham it up as the evillest of lawyers. Miles Teller is the only younger actor who really makes an impression, albeit in the stock “traitorous weasel” role.

Divergent could have been a lot of fun. It has the right amount of ridiculousness to work as a camp science-fiction throwback. Instead, the movie lacks the self-awareness to grasp its own absurdity, and so comes across as a pretentious waste.

16 Responses

  1. The Hunger Games at least breathes some fresh, new, fiery breath into this whole YA genre. However, movies like this and that dreadful piece of junk, the Host, are just making it worse for all of us. Yet, they continue to make money and therefore, they’re going to keep on being made. Good review Darren.

    • Thanks. It’s a vicious circle. Although I do try to keep my mind open. (I seem to be the only person who enjoyed Immortal Instruments as a campy self-aware teen melodrama.)

  2. I love reading reviews where it is ABUNDANTLY clear that the reviewer didn’t read the book. The book > the movie, I promise!

    • Considering how terrible the book is, that’s just making it sound worse.

    • Well, I never claimed to have read the books.

      But why is that a problem? There wasn’t a test on the way in, or a warning on the posters. I judge the art as it is presented to me. Is my opinion on the film (or anybody else’s opinion on the film) invalid because they haven’t read the source material?

      • Did I say it was a problem? All I said was book > movie, not that you were wrong about the movie.

      • Fair point, sorry.

        I’ve just noted over the years that “you haven’t read the book” is frequently a prelude to dismiss an opinion people disagree with. (Which strikes me as funny, as though the fact that somebody disliked the film needs to be invalidated – I’ve discovered that people seem to have a hard time accepting that opinions are just that; opinions.)

    • Nonsense. Every one of the criticisms in this review was true in the book, minus the comments about casting.

  3. Cool review man, to be honest I haven’t head anything good about this film and it comes out this week in the UK. In truth I’ve still been debating checking it out anyway, but I don’t want to feel like I’m wasting my time. Guess I’ll just watch Captain America 2 again and possibly Noah too.

  4. This is a first Darren. I disagree with your review. BTW Winslet isn’t a lawyer, she is the head of Erudite. The Candor ones do the legal shit. I’ve written quite a few reviews of Divergent, reading through different POV. Here’s my most recent reading through Lacan. http://moviesandfilm.blogspot.com/2014/05/divergent-reveiw-reading-beatricetris.html

    • Thanks for the link. And there’s no harm in disagreeing! (The world would be boring if everybody agreed on everything!)

      It has been a while since I’ve seen it, I must confess, but Candor are the ones who always speak their mind, right? When I say “lawyer”, I mean the sort of stereotypical depiction of lawyers as amoral, manipulative and dishonest power-brokers more concerned with playing the system than any sort of fairness. Which is, admitted, a rather broad definition that could apply to a number of other stereotypes, but it did resonate with me for reasons that I’ll concede may be slightly personal.

      Maybe “lawyer” is the wrong word, but I think that it’s reasonable to argue that Erudite are the truly professional caste. Winslet is cast as an amoral smooth-talking professional who uses language and rules (as much as science – though that is also a factor at the climax) to manipulate people in getting her what she wants.

      Thanks again for the insight, and there’s no harm in a counter opinion!

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