(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.