Sunday, June 1, 2014

Divergent (2014)

Directed by: Neil Burger
Based on the series of novels by: Veronica Roth
Runtime: 139 minutes

Sorry this is somewhat long-winded, and I know this is the next big thing for the teens but I hated this movie and it shocks me it has a 7.4 rating on IMDB.  Spoilers ahead...

Divergent is a Hunger Games/Harry Potter mashup that essentially serves as the prelude to George Orwell's 1984, or Kurt Wimmer's 2002 film Equilibrium (if you prefer).

To say this film is juvenile is to recognize its intended audience and perhaps even to recognize the age of the writer when the first book in the series was written.

It’s based on the series of novels by Veronica Roth who wrote the series while attending Northwestern University. Perhaps it explains the resemblance to other recent youth centric dystopian future stories.   I don't say all of this to diminish young people (still considering myself a young person) and their ability to create compelling films/literature, but with age comes experience and likely a greater sense or understanding of life that tends to translate into better, more realistic fantasy stories. Or at least stories that make more sense.

I also should mention this is intended to be about the movie, since I've not read the book. I'm willing admit that the book probably explains things in greater detail (which would have helped the film), but we must take the film as it is and judge it based on its own merit.

The film follows Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) or "Tris"  as she transitions from youth to a full fledged adult member of future Chicago, where society has been taken over by some strange faction system.  That leads me to the first problem. The factions really don't make any sense, but more on that in a bit.

Tris, and the other young adults have to take a test to determine which faction would be best for them before they are allowed to choose for themselves which faction they would like to join.  This begs the question why take a test to determine which faction they'd be most suited to if they were going to be able to choose for themselves later anyway.  Also why would anyone choose the boring factions if they were allowed to choose for themselves?  Seems like everyone would be joining one or two of the popular factions and there'd be no one manning the less popular ones.

Also if you fail to make the cut after picking your faction there is no going back, you are simply discarded into the "factionless" section of society.  Which is likely full of older citizens because we never seem to see anyone over the age of 30 (other than Tris' parents and Kate Winslet's character.  It's as if the writer forgot they exist.  Also if you're not among the top recruits you'll fail to make the cut and of course you'll be factionless.  So basically there would likely be an inordinate number of factionless people with no chance to chose a new faction or rejoin their previous one.  And there is no indication as to what factionless people do, so they are likely homeless bums with nothing to do and no way to support themselves. 

For a controlled system that supposedly creates a stable society, it seems as though that would create a big problem.  And you'd think these factionless would be at the forefront of any uprising should there be one, and there should be one.

 It's a society that makes no sense and essentially sets most people up for failure.  Perhaps that's the point, but if it is it isn't explained as if that is the problem that needs fixing, so it feels more like a plot hole than a plot point.  

Also who in their right mind allows a person of that age to determine the rest of their lives at that moment.  Anyone knows better then that.  So the system is broken, but somehow that never feels like the point either, and it should be the point.

The factions are:
  • Abegnation - The Selfless (Shouldn't these all be taking in the factionless?)
  • Erudite - The Intelligent (Shouldn't these all be smart enough to know their system is broken and then fix it?)
  • Dauntless - The Brave  (Responsible for defense of the city, but against what?)
  • Amity - The Peaceful  (Not a bad thing, but also not exactly the strongest bullet point on a resume)
  • Candor - The Honest  (So is it impossible for them to tell a lie? Like they really can't do it?)

If none of these qualities sound like jobs to you then you're likely just as confused as I was while watching this film. What do people actually do?  The film doesn't really go into it very much, and that is part of the problem.  There isn't much depth or fleshing out of this strange society and its faction system.  None of these qualities are job descriptions.  Bravery, for instance, doesn't necessarily make you a good soldier or policeman.  Being peaceful or honest, although good qualities to have, does not suit you for any particular role in life.  And let's not even begin to discuss the fact that there are more qualities than these in life and the possibility that some of these can overlap each other.

After taking her test, Tris is told she is divergent, which means the test didn't work on her.  She won't fit in, in any particular faction. Apparently an inconclusive test indicates aptitude for multiple factions.  Wait a minute, pretty much everyone in the entire world has multiple qualities, so shouldn't everyone be "divergent" then?
Sadly this also doesn't seem to be one of the overall points, because very few people in this dystopian future seem to actually have multiple qualities.

In a scene that resembles the Harry Potter scene where the kids walk up one by one and a school is chosen for them, the young adults get to chose their faction. Tris chooses Dauntless.  Dauntless is essentially a police force that is responsible for defense of the city, but defense against what is never explained.  Perhaps they have to defend against uprisings from the factionless, but then again if that were the case it wouldn't make sense for them to be throwing more potential initiates to the enemy. They wouldn't want to consistently add to their problems. Or maybe they do, intelligence isn't one of their qualities after all.

The members of Dauntless are shown running around giggling while they climb things randomly and jumping around. It's hardly your company of heroes or seasoned warriors.  At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, all the running, jumping, climbing and giggling make them seem like a joke. They're a group of young hooligans I wouldn't trust with the neighborhood night watch let alone defense of the city.  They really are a joke when you see them in the earlier scenes.  Apparently running, jumping and climbing things is the only way to show that you're brave, and no one from any other faction would dare do these things.  It must be the only thing for the faction to do since there doesn't appear to be any outside threats.

When she gets to their headquarters, which is only accessible by running to catch a train (because apparently they never stop, seriously why do they always have to run and jump on the train, are there no train stations?), she meets the leaders of the group.  All of them are basically jerks who mistake douchiness for toughness, except for one guy who takes an interest in her.

There is a long section of this film devoted to training and testing the initiates to determine whether they are Dauntless material or not.  Dealing with the main leader of the group is essentially a no win situation. Even in instances where Tris shows courage and toughness to stand up to him and then does as he asks her, she still loses points. 

There are also dream sequences that serve as tests, but she is the only one who realizes they are just dreams which allows her to break out of them where other initiates would be afraid.  This also indicates that she's divergent.  How? I don't know, it just does.  

The film has some strange, rough editing at times that make it hard to follow and when they go from dream sequence to dream sequence, to her waking up only to realize she still in a dream sequence (no this isn't Inception), it gets even more choppy.

While she (and the audience) struggles to figure out what being divergent really means, she uncovers a plot by Erudite to overthrow the current leadership (Abegnation) and use a mind control serum to turn the members of Dauntless into their military drones.

The serum won't work on her, but they use an experimental version of the serum on her love interest, Four (yes his name is Four), who also happens to be divergent. As it turns out being divergent isn't as special or rare as we thought.

Her mother shows up to help her, and she informs Tris that she was once a member of Dauntless.  Which should raise a red flag, because we've already been told that once you pick a faction you can't go back and if you fail to make the cut you'll be factionless.  So how did Tris' mother end up in Abegnation?  We don't know, and they never tell us. 

Later, in perhaps the cheesiest and most predictable moment, she reprograms Four's mind by appealing to his emotional feelings for her. I don’t mean to sound like a buzz kill but I would appreciate it if in one of these situation the writer would understand our own mortality. It isn't realistic in the least to think that our emotions will rule us if we've been drugged. If I've been drugged with an anesthetic, as much as I would like, I won’t be able to use my emotional feelings or "mind over matter" to keep myself awake. That’s just reality.  It's part of what makes us human.  It's an inevitable fact.  So it bothers me when films and books pretend like the power of our will (as great as it is) can overcome these things.

It's one thing to tell us that the serum won't work on those who are divergent, but once you've shown us an alternate version that does, it breaks my suspension of disbelief to tell me you can break the power of the serum with your emotions.  At that point, they shouldn't have to break the mind control computer. A rousing speech should rally the people right?

Also,  the movie doesn't get less cheesy if you state the title or have the main character proudly tell us what she is during the heat of a fight: “I’m divergent."  The Matrix would not have been improved if while Neo was fighting Mr. Smith he stopped to say, "Hey, you know why I'm going to win? Because I'm 'The One.'"  We all joke around about how Batman can do anything and then justify it by saying, "I'm Batman."  But thankfully Christopher Nolan did not add a line where he said "I'm Batman" just before dealing a final punch to the bad guy.

Near the end, once they've essentially foiled the plan and beaten the bad guy, they leave her there where we can assume she'll just wake up and continue where she left off.  So apparently intelligence is not among their divergent qualities. Apparently they were in a hurry to run off to catch another one of those non-stop trains to ride off into the sunset, or at least until they jump off somewhere else.  Honestly if I were the bad guys I'd have stationed my men on those unstoppable trains because everyone knows these dauntless types are always jumping on and off of them.

For those looking for a comparison of this and The Hunger Games, I'll save you some time, The Hunger Games is better.  Although, as I've already written, The Hunger Games pales in comparison to Battle Royale.

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