Divergent Film Review

The idea of this movie was presented to me in the form of trailers on DVDs of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Ender's Game. Disappointingly, this movie isn't really as good as either of those. Let's look at Divergent.

In this world, explanations are glossed over to get to dramatic action scenes, just like in The Hunger Games, but I understand that the setting is some kind of post-disaster* version of Chicago, but the movie doesn't say what happened to make it a scarier place to live than it is. Society has organized itself in five factions, which are organizations whose philosophies boil down to following one human virtue to its logical extreme. Yes. I know. It would have been just as believable as a system of government as using the fucking Sorting Hat. Anyway, the factions are as follows:

Dauntless: Perseverance/ Fearlessness

Abnegation: Selflessness/self-sacrifice

Erudite: Knowledge/ Intelligence

Amnity: Kindness

Candor: Honesty

Anyway, each child is raised in their parents' faction (and I guess two people from different factions aren't allowed to marry or have children together?) and when he or she turns 16, they take a psychological test that is designed to tell them what faction they belong in, and then there is a choosing ceremony, which allows the teenager to choose whatever faction he or she wants regardless of the fucking test. So why bother to take the test? I guess they just like psychologically scarring teenagers, or maybe it's just because most people at 16 don't know what they want to do with their lives. Once you choose a faction, there is no going back, and if you fail to measure up to their tests, you can get kicked out and become one of the hated "factionless", which are basically just regular homeless people like you'd see in Chicago or any big city today.

* I hate saying post-apocalyptic, because the word "apocalypse" describes an event in the Bible that kills everyone in the entire world, so I don't see how there can be a post-apocalypse world. Unless it takes place in some kind of supernatural afterlife and all humans have actually died, there is only ever a post-disaster world. Am I being nit-picky?

So the movie's main character is Beatrice (who later chooses the name Tris because all teenage girls do something weird to their names), who grew up in Abnegation. The faction of Abnegation seems to live sort of like nuns, Mennonites, or Mormons (especially Mormons of the distant past) and wear drab clothing, do not keep mirrors or remember birthdays, and don't eat meat. I'm sure there's a million other things about being Abnegation that are either more fleshed out in the books or in the first 10 minutes of this movie, which I missed because of, ironically, Chicago traffic. (If only I could have jumped off the El to get to the theater.)

Anyway, Tris is just a normal girl growing up in Abnegation who doubts whether she wants to stay in Abnegation as an adult. She seems in particular to be attracted to the Dauntless faction, a group of basically badass stunt double types who wear black, get tattoos and piercings, and get everywhere by riding El trains (the Chicago subway system, short for "elevated" because the trains are sometimes subways but often on elevated rails above buildings), which they jump from onto roofs. No one knows why the El doesn't stop like it does now, or explains who's driving a train that never stops or how they know how to work the train but not how to stop it. (This movie really doesn't give enough exposition about anything.)

So ANYWAY, she takes her aptitude test, which, as it turns out, is not your typical scantron but a thing where they inject you with something that knocks you out and makes you see in kind of a dream state a series of choices or problems that will determine I guess what your highest value is, telling you what faction you should choose. They say about 90% of the kids end up with the faction they were raised as, and the lady who administers the test, from Dauntless, thinks that probably Tris should be no exception. However, Tris' test ends when she hesitates too long in making choices. (Which makes me guess that Shinji Ikari would also have a hard time finding a faction.)

So she wakes up, and is informed that the test didn't work on her, and that she can't tell anyone about this fact. It's kind of weird to her, but she accepts it, and chooses Dauntless. I'd like to point out that I saw a lot of teenage cliches in this choice. I mean, she's raised in an almost monastic environment and then chooses to hang out with the "bad" and "dangerous" crowd. And then most of the movie is taken up by her trying to prove that she really does belong with them, as they put her through a series of incredibly tough challenges and she gets a Mulan-esque training montage. The stakes are high here, because if she can't cut it in the militaristic Dauntless faction and survive their adrenaline-pumped training, they will kick her out and she will either be factionless or perhaps have to get her parents, who have a bit of clout in their faction, to let her back into Abnegation.

And the Dauntless faction is not easy on its new recruits, and in fact has a system set up to where they will constantly judge trainees and rank them, giving the bottom fourth or so of the group the shaft. Tris didn't know going in that factions can reject trainees. They don't show what training is like in other factions, but I think it's a good thing in terms of movie-making that she didn't choose Erudite because watching her read books and do math and stuff would probably be less cool-looking than showing her sparring, throwing knives, and playing a super hardcore version of capture-the-flag, which involves her climbing the now-abandoned and rusted Navy Pier Ferris wheel.

And then at some point the movie remembers to have a plot amidst all this crazy teenage adrenaline fantasy, and she gets a secret message from her mother and the test lady, who's also a tattoo lady in Dauntless: since the test didn't work on her, that makes her a Divergent, and that's something she has to hide from the powers that be, for... unexplained reasons.

This is a major problem I had with this film. First, they don't explain why being a Divergent is bad, since the test is not supposed to be the sole reason for a person's faction choice in the first place. Second, they don't specifically explore why Tris is so bad or "outside the system". She desperately wants to conform to the standards of Dauntless, and if they'd simply let her do that, she would have been happy. And how stupid are the ominous evil Erudite people who are messing with her when if left alone she would have been a perfect dog? The only reason she really becomes a rebel is not so much because her mind is so extraordinary that she is by nature adverse to authority, but being treated as such causes her to become an adversary to the system.

I'm not going to give away spoilers by discussing the ending, but I'm still left full of questions about the world Tris lives in that the film doesn't explain, and left thinking that the faction that turns out to be evil, Erudite, is pretty fucking senseless for supposedly being the intelligence faction. Way to represent us nerds, Erudite. And that leads to another issue with this film; vilifying the very concept of intelligence, even though plenty of other movies do that, especially in anti-intellectual America. But if you have a girl that's different and doesn't conform in a movie, they usually show it as being because she's smarter than the system that's trying to force her to conform, like Belle, Mulan, or Daria. But Tris is really just someone who wants to fit in, wants to belong to society, and accidentally stumbles on a glitch in the system that prevents her from it. This also makes her unlike heroes of other dystopic fiction, who usually stumble upon the truth of the world they live in through exploration and intellectual curiosity, like Winston in 1984 or Bernard Marx in Brave New World. Tris is not super curious and doesn't seem to want to know any more than what she has to know to survive. So you have a rather bland protagonist and a world that makes no sense whatsoever. I mean, there's no real benefit to the conspiracies and lies to the conspirators, and a ton of risk to them for doing what they do, and they make Tris become a criminal by treating her like one. And how do I know she's not especially curious? Because the book and as a result the movie is told from her perspective, and if she had been more interested in learning stuff, maybe the audience would have gotten the information they need, in my opinion, to really care about the conflicts in this movie.

So then what does this movie do right? Well, you could argue that everything is supposed to symbolize contemporary politics. As a story, it's not especially compelling, but it is steeped in references to real-world issues, such as war, genocide, homelessness, crime, inequality, etc. It also might be making the case with Tris' plight that bad governments tend to screw up and work against even their own self-interests in an attempt to further some kind of ideology. However, the only ideology given by the Erudite villainess is "human nature is evil and fuck Abnegation faction", so... um. What are they trying to say here? That smart people want to destroy the religious, who are selfless? Some of the Abnegation were abusive parents, so they did have grounds to try to sanction them in some way for that, they just went overboard. Again, for unexplained, vague reasons. I guess the movie is trying to say human nature is good and cooperative and altruistic, and that the evil smart people think human nature is evil and should be manipulated by technology. I have no idea what this movie/book is trying to say, and it doesn't say it very clearly. And if I knew what the author was trying to say, it would probably just piss me off anyway, which is why I think she muddled her intentions that were probably to be preachy and anti-intellectual, but she seems, (rather unlike a Dauntless) totally afraid to openly express these intentions if that is what she's going for with this book.

I guess if I had to pick a faction, it would be Candor, because I want to know the truth about this world, and the purpose of the faction system, as well as the purpose of treating Divergents like outcasts. I think based on TV Tropes spoilers that these are shown in the third book. Part of me wants to stick around and watch this series progress to see if more information is revealed, but another part of me thinks it probably won't be worth the wait. Or the money spent to buy the books or go to future movies in the series. There's better dystopian fiction and better fiction about kickass teenage girls.

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