Divergent (2014) doesn’t diverge from the YA dystopian formula
When it comes to teen-oriented movies, one of the more positive developments of the last two years is how the “supernatural romance” subgenre of YA novel adaptations—so common after the success of Twilight—has finally burnt itself out. Unfortunately, the “teens overthrowing totalitarian regimes in a future dystopia” subgenre has arrived to fill the void. In the same spirit of The Hunger Games and The Giver comes Neil Burger’s Divergent (2014), where we see what happens when humans decide to build whole societies around single isolated virtues and really boring color-coordinated wardrobes.
The movie begins in a future Chicago after a major war that wiped out a lot of humanity. Those that survived divided themselves up into factions based around five virtues, and each faction dresses in their own color scheme and uses their primary virtue to play a vital role in society. The Abnegation faction (selflessness/gray) are the public servants, and Erudite (intelligence/blue) are the scientists and teachers. The Candor faction (honesty/black and white) serve as the lawyers and judges, while Amity (peacefulness/red and yellow) are the counselors and caretakers. And finally, there’s Dauntless (bravery/black) who are the death-defying, adrenaline-junkie foot soldiers.
At the age of 16, young citizens get to decide which faction they want to belong to going forward. They can choose to stay with their parents’ faction, or transfer to another, and they’re only given an exceedingly brief aptitude test to help with their decision. But if they choose wrong and can’t cut it in their chosen faction, they’re doomed to be “faction-less” and roam the city without support, friends, or basic necessities.
The story begins just before Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are set to take their aptitude tests. Raised in the Abnegation faction, both children have an allegiance to their parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), as well as a knack for being selfless. While Caleb seems calm and collected about his decision, Beatrice feels confused and torn between her family and the life she could be living outside of her strict faction—and who wouldn’t get sick of wearing baggy gray clothes every day, anyway?
As the two kids wait in line to take the aptitude test, it’s obvious there’s more to Beatrice than demure selflessness, as she’s eager to jump into a fight between two boys from different factions. But her brother stops her, and then they go their separate ways to take the test, and this is where things begin to change for Beatrice.
The woman who administers the test (Maggie Q) gives her a truth serum-like drug that exposes her innermost thoughts and allows the test administrator to determine her strongest virtue. Beatrice finds herself in a strange dream where she’s trapped in a hall of mirrors and has to take down an evil-looking dog, and when she wakes up, the administrator drops a bombshell on her: Beatrice is displaying traits of all five factions. Her kind is an extremely rare breed, better known as “Divergent”.
For unclear reasons, it’s extremely dangerous for a Divergent to reveal his or her true nature, so Beatrice is instructed to keep the test results secret, and tell everyone she received an Abnegation result in order to keep herself safe.
Soon, it’s the day of the faction-choosing ceremony, where all the young people have to get on stage and slice their palms with a knife, and bleed into a bowl full of some object that symbolizes their chosen faction (and yes, everybody uses the same knife, which just seems really gross and unsanitary).
Beatrice is torn by her test results and where her future lies. Both her parents say they’ll love her no matter what she decides, but they know if she chooses a different faction, they’ll never see her again. Caleb eventually surprises everyone by picking the smarty-pants Erudite over Abnegation. This makes Beatrice feel even more obligated to choose Abnegation, but in a last-second decision, she chooses to join up with the risk-taking Dauntless.
She barely has a moment to reflect on her choice, as the ceremony ends and the members of Dauntless immediately take off running. They all jump onto a moving train as she struggles to keep up with them, but she holds her own and manages to get on just in the nick of time. On the train, she bonds with a former Candor named Christina (Zoe Kravitz). Both of them are immediately put to the test again when they’re forced to jump from the moving train onto the roof of a building. And then Beatrice is required to make one more leap of faith to prove herself. She has to fall off the building into a deep dark hole that turns out to have a safety net at the bottom, and it seems this is the entrance into Dauntless territory.
Beatrice puts on her new all-black uniform and gives herself a new Dauntless name, “Tris”. She trains to become one of them, but soon fails to cut it in the physical aspects of her training. Her bravery shines through during many of the activities, but in one-on-one combat, she can’t seem to improve. She even manages to anger her trainer Eric (Jai Courtney), who’s more or less a sadistic drill instructor who makes it his mission to knock her out of the running to become a Dauntless. He almost succeeds by placing Tris in a brutal fight with a guy much larger than her.
Tris wakes up in the hospital, but still manages to recover in time to join the final mission to become Dauntless. It’s a big game of Capture the Flag taking place in the ruins of downtown Chicago, and she finally proves herself by being the one to grab the enemy’s flag. She’s rewarded by getting to go on an insanely long zip-line that takes her through all the half-destroyed Chicago skyscrapers and deposits her among her joyous comrades below.
At the same time she’s enduring all these physical challenges, Tris is also learning how to deal with mental challenges from another DI named Four (Theo Evans). Yes, his name is “Four”, and while a character does point out how stupid the name is, that doesn’t make it any less stupid.
Four is tasked with giving Tris doses of a serum that induce dreams, where she has to face her worst fears and somehow conquer them. This mostly involves a nightmare where she’s attacked by birds, and another where she’s in a glass tank that slowly fills up with water (Hey, remember that scene prominently featured in the trailers and TV spots that made it look like she had the ability to breathe underwater? Yep, turns out it’s just a dream sequence).
Being a Divergent, Tris is able to easily blow through these tests by breaking free of the serum’s power and telling herself none of it is real. Four is stunned by how fast she’s able to defeat her fears, which makes him doubt her original aptitude test results. Eventually, word gets around that she’s Divergent, which results in a band of fellow recruits trying to kill her, until Four comes to her rescue.
At the same time, we find out the Erudite faction is actively seeking out Divergents, as they believe they’re a threat to society. Four begins to train Tris to hide her Divergent nature, and act more like a Dauntless as she takes the tests. And as they spend more time together, Tris and Four slowly begin to fall in love, because duh, it’s a movie for teens.
Finally, Tris has to take the final test, and she runs through the gamut of nightmares while Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), the leader of the Erudites watches closely. Tris manages to pass with flying colors, and she gets a tracking device embedded in her neck that’s supposedly a new requirement for all Dauntless.
Except, it turns out to not be a tracking device, but rather a mind-control device. We learn Jeanine and the Erudite faction want to exterminate the Abnegation faction and assume control of the government. To this end, the new Dauntless recruits are turned into mindless zombies and ordered to arm themselves and march to Abnegation territory. Tris, still being a special Divergent snowflake, isn’t affected by the mind control, but she falls in with the group’s march anyway to hide her Divergent status.
Soon, the Dauntless members are telepathically instructed to begin executing all the Abnegation. During this rather bloodless massacre, Tris tries to locate her mother and father to keep them from being killed. She quickly realizes that Four isn’t following the mind control either, which mean he’s Divergent just like her. They team up to try to fight back, but eventually get caught.
Four is carted away for experimentation, while Tris is set to be executed by another Dauntless. Just then, Tris’ mother and father show up to rescue her, and it seems Tris’ mother was formerly a Dauntless, meaning we get brief moments of Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn running around like commandos. Predictably, they both get killed, but before they do, they help Tris sneak back into Dauntless territory to find a way to stop the bloodshed.
After plenty of gunfights and scuffles, Tris frees Four, and together they inject Jeanine with the mind control serum and force her to abort her plans to kill all the Abnegation. Problem solved! The movie ends with our two Divergent lovebirds on the run, surely plotting how they’re going to bring down the fascist regime in the inevitable sequels. And I do mean inevitable; Insurgent is currently being filmed back-to-back with the two sequels after that, Allegiant: Part 1 and Allegiant: Part 2. That’s right: the third book will be split into two different movies, because that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days.
I haven’t read the young adult book series by Veronica Roth, but it’s clear that even with a 139-minute runtime, a whole lot of information was left out. There were many gaps in the story; luckily, I had someone sitting next to me who had read the books who could explain a lot of this stuff to me, but otherwise I would have been a lot more lost. And even knowing all the extra tidbits from the book, the movie still ended up being mostly uninvolving.
The biggest problem with Divergent is that it never convinces us it has a reason to exist. The whole time I was watching, I kept wondering what the compelling idea or hook was that made someone really want to make this into a movie (other than the obvious fact that the similar Hunger Games was a hit). The idea of an oddball outsider or freak of nature turning a domineering society upside-down is pretty well-trodden ground by now, and this movie adds nothing new or fresh to the premise. I thought perhaps there would be some supernatural or paranormal twist to liven things up, but the story is pretty light on sci-fi/fantasy concepts.
I’m a huge fan of dystopian anything, and the initial premise of humanity divided into factions had me intrigued. However, the movie raises a lot more questions than it answers. For instance, how is it that human beings can somehow give up most of their virtues just to concentrate on one? Did this happen over time, or were people given some sort of magic potion to knock other virtues out of their minds?
Also, why would any sane individual want to be in Dauntless? It appears to be a faction full of brutal, jack-booted sociopaths, and joining up involves crazy rituals that combine the worst of Marine boot camp with the worst of fraternity hazing. There are several moments where Jai Courtney’s Eric comes close to killing his recruits, either by tossing them off bridges or having knives thrown at their heads. And we’re supposed to feel happy for Tris becoming a part of this?
Apart from the bland plot, there’s the rather dull acting to contend with. Courtney may have a great career ahead of him playing good-looking psychopaths, but that’s about it for positives. Kate Winslet seems to have prepared for her role by closely studying Jodie Foster’s turn as pretty much the same character in Elysium (minus the bizarre Anglo-Franco-Texan accent). And it feels a lot like Shailene Woodley only gets roles like this because she’s the not-too-pretty brunette everygirl, not because she’s all that interesting to watch.
No one seems to have a full idea of who their characters are supposed to be, which made the whole film feel incredibly flat. And throwing in a romance between Tris and Four just makes things even more tired and clichéd. Is it possible to make a young adult-oriented novel or film these days without putting in a sappy romance subplot? As of now, we can only wonder.
Overall, Divergent is just as gray and boring as one of Tris’ Abnegation dresses, which makes me wonder how they can possibly keep audiences interested for another three of these movies.