Skip to main content

Don't try and define me.

Divergent
(2014)

(SPOILERS) If there are more worthy contenders for the most enjoyable yet really, really, stupid movie of 2014 I’ll be very surprised. Neil Burger has assembled a strong cast and brought keen visual acumen and to this adaptation of Veronica Roth’s Young Adult novel, and it simply doesn’t deserve it. The entire premise is nonsense, for which many have quite rightly decried Divergent, but if you can get past that – and it’s a big if – this is a much better made and more engaging movie than the majority of its teen-orientated stable mates.


Probably its closest relative is the current big success that justifies the rest; The Hunger Games. Both feature dystopian futures with bizarre (or just plain batty) systems of rule. The Hunger Games can’t lay claim to the most commonsensical of premises but as long as there are some deadly games to play it is able to juggle sufficient distractions. Burger’s picture runs with some of the key ingredients of that series; a strong lead (Shailene Woodley has done a Jennifer Lawrence this year with back-to-back hits, and her performance in Divergence is compelling enough to carry much of idiocy), old hands in supporting roles (Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn – shockingly – playing a good guy), a director with a more-than-journeyman reputation chosen to lend the proceedings a smattering of credibility. Of course, the path to Young Adult success is littered with similarly calculated fizzles (last year’s The Host being a prime example). It’s a tribute to Burger and his cast and crew that, for all the occasions where you’re left scratching your head at the incoherence of this world, it is conveyed with a conviction and assurance that forgives it many of Roth’s conceptual impertinences.


Burger is dab handed at world building and on those terms this might have ranked as the best of Young Adult adaptations, if only it made a modicum of sense (co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor has a series of TV credits including Game of Thrones to her name, but Evan Daugherty can claim nothing of merit; it’s unclear to what extent Burger performed surgery). The director’s past form includes a couple of worthy notables. The Prestige may have stolen The Illusionist’s thunder, but the latter remains an effective and underappreciated magic movie, while Limitless did just about as much as anyone could with a script that ultimately fell short of the potential of its premise. Burger may well have taken this one on for the potential boost it would give to his CV; a picture that earns some serious moolah can help open doors and lead to green lights. But there are also elements that must have appealed given his previous projects, not least altered states undergone by Tris.


So it’s future Chicago (we don’t know what else is out there yet, and I’m not so enamoured by the story that I want to get ahead of myself) and the survivors of some war or other live in the ruins of the city (they seem to have abundant advanced technology at their disposal, but zero interest in tidying the place up). Everyone belongs to one of five groups; Erudites (the smart ones), Amitys (Amishies – the kind ones who farm the land), Candors (the honest ones), Dauntless (the brave ones, who protect the others) and Abnegations (the selfless ones, who rule). Oh, wait. No, there are six groups; the Factionless ones don’t fit in anywhere (requiring Tris to qualify her comment that “It all works”).


Each person fits in according to their particular aptitude, taking the Test when they are 16. This tells them who they are and where they belong. Except… anyone still has the right to chose any of the five castes and ignore the Test. You’d have thought anyone questioning the system like that would immediately end up as plant food, as it seems like divergent behaviour in and of itself. For some reason the Abnegations rule (they care about others, so they must be a bunch of Commies) but isn’t clear why they got first dibs. The Erudites don’t like this, which seems a bit divergent of them too. But entirely understandable, as you wouldn’t be willing to toe the line if you know you’re the smartest faction in the remains of the city. Really though, since might is usually right, there ought to be a system of fascist rule by the Dauntless.


Essentially then, the premise makes not a jot of sense. We see no particular evidence that anyone ostensibly in possession of a particular aptitude is blessed with it in more abundant and free flowing form than anyone going without (and presumably those who decide to pick a different faction to the one they are tested for will be permanently struggling against their prescribed skillset). The idea is to conform to preordained restrictions. Kate Winslet’s Jeanine instructs Tris that human nature is the enemy, that the aim is to eradicate behaviour such as secrets, lies, and stealing and to maintain a stable, peaceful society. But clearly no one is doing this, least of all the Erudites who through nefarious means plan the overthrow of the Abnegations.


One might argue the whole construct as a metaphor for the inherent lies we swallow in any socio-political or religious system, except that one would only have to stop and think about this paradigm for a precious few minutes to realise it defies logic. If you were being brought up in the wrong faction until you were 16 wouldn’t you be breaking out and rebelling against it for all that time? If you were a Dauntless and you were stuck being an Amish? The difficulty of imagining a wholly different society while simultaneously abiding by the basic rules of drama and need to create conflict is nothing new; the ‘80s TV adaptation of John Carpenter’s The Tripods (a proto-Young Adult trilogy) found itself presenting capped masses who behave in pretty much the same way as uncapped people, so on some level undermining the entire premise.


Tris is one of the special ones; she has a little bit of everything, a good all-rounder; “You don’t fit into a category. They can’t control you”; “You don’t conform. You’re mind works in a million different ways. They’re scared of you”. Which basically means she gives good lucid dreaming. The idea of being different in both a superior and a persecuted way is surely the appeal of the series to teenagers right there. We all feel naturally different and distinct and unique, so presenting our essential normality as a prized and unusual facility is innately attractive. The series could probably have worked in a similar pool with your common-or-garden caste system, so leaving aside any particular genetic make-up underpinning it, but then the central appeal of the lead character would also be lost.


Yet one of the reasons the picture doesn’t completely fall apart under the wreckage of its absurd conceit is that there’s more than enough else going on to distract. None of it is top tier, but it is sufficiently intriguing and vital. The hallucinatory sequences are particularly potent. Not so much notionally, as this is standard stuff of fears, but in execution and willingness to spend significant spells in Tris’ dreamscape. The Test involves little more than how best to respond to a mad dog, while the training programme requiring the Dauntless to face their fears (“Most people have 10 to 15 really bad ones” – okay…) doesn’t have the most imaginative of threats (birds, fire, a bog, drowning) but Burger’s precise eye and Woodley’s in-the-moment self-discovery and actualisation are engrossing.


The concentration on the Dauntless is a bigger problem to surmount, as they’re the action kids who run around and leap about and climb up shit (hey, they’re the cool kids everyone loves, but somehow nerdy Tris is invited to join their gang). In the introductory passages this looked as it was going to be as cheesy as cheesy could be, and what we get does play out as a soft-centred riff on the first half of Full Metal Jacket with added war-gaming. But it’s blessed with a superbly malevolent turn from Jai Courtney as the bad instructor and a surprisingly nuanced one from Theo James as the good one (who, inevitably, falls for Tris). Miles Teller also plays a little shit with aplomb; he did it for the bucks not the art, and so he will be made to feel “dead inside” once more for the sequel, poor lamb. There’s an effective air of tension throughout the Dauntless episodes, with an constant threat of Tris’ secret being discovered.


The plot takes a left turn in the third act, from being all about Tris to focussing on the coup attempt to usurp the Abnegations. The stakes are raised here, with at least as much bloodshed as in the Katniss evergames. The control-chipped soldiers unfortunately serve to let the makers off the hook with the implications of a highly disciplined and militarised force of young scallys who don’t need to be trained to do the wrong thing; it’s beyond their control (while this does prey on fears regarding the advance of chipping technology, it’s fairly weightless). The added problem is that Kate Winslet is saddled with a villain as one-note as Jodie Foster’s in Elysium, and who seems to be something of a sole instigator tour de force.


Winslet is only a weak link in so far as she can’t work miracles, but it’s still interesting to see her and Judd now taking on the older generation roles; Maggie Q too, even though she’s not very old at all. The strength of the performances across the board is notable, but Woodley in particular is tremendous; ever present and affecting throughout. Her character is also blessed with a sense of humour, not always a regular feature of self-involved YA fare (“It’s not like you’re going to shoot me” she is told, to which she shoots the guy, the second person to suggest this, and ponders “Why do people keep saying that?”)


I’m not sure Divergent has much place to go that will allow it to disguise the inadequacies of its premise. And, with Neil Burger off and the stylish but empty Robert Schwenke aboard (R.I.P.D.), the first may well end up going down as the best of the series. This one isn’t going to reach the stratosphere like Hunger Games or Twilight, but it has proved a solid medium range success. Reportedly the sequel novels make some rather ineffective attempts to address the gaping holes in the logic of Roth’s establishing vision. The problem is, even if elements were changed for the better, the place to start that in a movie would have been here.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) Cheeseburger Film Sandwich . Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon . Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie . Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie , arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate t

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Wow. Asteroids are made of farts. Okay. I got it.

Greenland (2020) (SPOILERS) Global terror porn for overpopulation adherents as Gerard Butler and his family do their darnedest to reach the safety of a bunker in the titular country in the face of an imminent comet impact. Basically, what if 2012 were played straight? These things come to test cinemas in cycles, of course. Sean Connery struggled with a duff rug and a stack of mud in Meteor , while Deep Impact plumbed for another dread comet and Armageddon an asteroid. The former, owing to the combined forces of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, was a – relatively – more meditative fare. The latter was directed by Michael Bay. And then there’s Roland Emmerich, who having hoisted a big freeze on us in The Day After Tomorrow then wreaked a relatively original source of devastation in the form of 2012 ’s overheating Earth’s core. Greenland , meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Angel Has Fallen .

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.