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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

I can't explain now, but I've just been murdered.

The Avengers
5.21: You Have Just Been Murdered
Slender in concept – if you're holding out for a second act twist, you'll be sorely disappointed – You Have Just Been Murdered nevertheless sustains itself far past the point one might expect thanks to shock value that doesn't wear out through repetition, a suitably sinister performance from Simon Oates (Steed in the 1971 stage adaptation of the show) and a cartoonish one from George Murcell (1.3: Square Root of Evil) as Needle, of the sort you might expect Matt Berry to spoof.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …