Divergent

April 12, 2014
Shailene Woodley in 'Divergent' (2014)
Shailene Woodley in 'Divergent' (2014)

After spending a couple of hours at The Grand Budapest Hotel any other movie might seem humdrum. Neil Burger’s Divergent has the bigger problem of standing directly in the shadow of The Hunger Games, already an established franchise in the lucrative Young Adult market.

I’m beginning to feel I’ve been wasting my life writing film reviews when I could’ve been knocking off a series of dystopian Young Adult novels. It doesn’t seem particularly difficult. The golden rule is that each story must be a parable of teenage empowerment in which an apparently ordinary girl discovers exceptional abilities. The enemy is an oppressive government, representing the adult world, whose pathological need for efficiency and order has degenerated into fascism.

Against all odds our teenage heroine fights against the power of the state and triumphs. Her victory, however, is only a provisional one. The struggle continues for at least another two sequels.

One of the great cinematic surprises last year was that Catching Fire – the second instalment in the Hunger Games series – was much better than I’d anticipated. Suzanne Collins’s story was suitably formulaic but director, Francis Lawrence, managed to inject life into the characters and insert an undercurrent of satire. Having said that, the success of the film owed much to the luminous presence of Jennifer Lawrence as the heroine, Katniss Everdeen.

Divergent is the first in a projected trilogy, based on a series of novels by Veronica Roth. It comes to us from the same group that gave us The Hunger Games and the Twilight films. It seems the old adage still applies: “If you’re on a good thing, stick to it.”

In a world largely destroyed by nuclear war, the city of Chicago has survived by surrounding itself with a gigantic fence. Within those confines society has been reorganised into five separate groups: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. These groupings, based on specific personality types, are assigned different but complementary functions. To summarise: Abnegation contains selfless, caring people who eschew worldly gain, and have been put in charge of government; Amity is filled with homespun farmer types; Candor is a class of lawyers; Dauntless is a warrior caste; while Erudite is the class for intellectuals and scientists.

Fresh-faced Shaina Woodley tries hard in the lead role of Beatrice Prior, but Jennifer Lawrence she ain’t. The story begins with Beatrice, born into the Abnegation class, undergoing the personality test that will determine her place in the adult world. The test reveals she is different from the rest – containing traits of Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite. In a word, she is Divergent, and that is a dangerous place in a world that demands conformity to a single class.

Exercising her right to choose, Beatrice enters the Dauntless class, which entitles her to spend the next couple of hours jumping off buildings, having bare knuckle fights, firing guns at targets and people. In this new life she ditches the name Beatrice, and becomes Tris. She finds it hard at first but eventually becomes a skilled fighter. Within the group she makes enemies and friends, forming an alliance with the chiselled instructor known only as Four (Theo James).

Meanwhile Erudite, led by the steely Jeannine (Kate Winslet), aims to relieve Abnegation of the responsibility of government. The grab for power begins with a smear campaign and escalates into a full-scale coup d’etat in which the warriors of Dauntless are placed under chemical control and used as enforcers. Only the secretly Divergent Tris, and her friend Four, remain un-zombified and ready to the resist the New World Order.

This is the bare bones of the story. The details are a bit harder to swallow. At least the characters in The Hunger Games had interesting folksy names like “Katniss” and “Haymitch”. Can anybody believe a would-be super dictator with a name like “Jeanine Matthews”?

The classes are equally unconvincing. Amity are smiling serfs that work in the fields all day. The Candor mob seem perfectly redundant, inasmuch as maudlin Abnegation runs the government. Dauntless act like self-destructive idiots, day and night. Erudite, however, is the real worry. The film seems to imply that these brainy types have been corrupted by their own intelligence into believing they are innately superior to everyone else. The message to teenagers is that there is something inherently evil about those who value the life of the mind. Perhaps it’s better to be a dope.

To enjoy Divergent it’s definitely better not be too smart. Otherwise, you might wonder why a movie which preaches the revolutionary value of non-conformity is so deadeningly similar to every other Young Adult, dystopian sci-fi flick.

Divergent
USA, rated M
139 mins
Directed by Neil Burger; screenplay by Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor, based on a novel by Veronica Roth; starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Zoë Kravitz, Ansel Elgort

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12 April, 2014.