Dystopian Sci-Fi Romance Does Nothing To Diversify The YA Movie Landscape
DIRECTED BY NEIL BURGER/2014
“I like training sequences to run no longer than the length of the song ‘Eye of the Tiger’. This one runs ninety minutes.” That was my friend’s reaction to the bloated, flat and sparkless Divergent, in which an unlikely heroine will rise up and challenge the Powers That Be Powerful.
So certain that the world needs another of its Hunger Gamesfranchises, Lionsgate has promptly bought up and churned out this next entry in the current parade of dystopian young adult sci-fi social allegory, the ironically titled “Divergent” book series, by Veronica Roth. Having not read either the white-hot Divergent or Hunger Games source material, I can merely assess that based upon their film adaptations, Divergent does not diversify the field by much. A minor case in point: The Hunger Games has Lenny Kravitz, this film has his daughter.
Again, there’s a young girl, Beatrice (soon shortened to the cooler “Tris”, just ’cause), forced into rebellion against an oppressive systemic hierarchy. The dust has settled since our current world ended long ago, resulting in a more exaggerated class system not unlike our own. Like The Hunger Games, the plot hinges upon allegorical real-life notions of how we as a culture treat our youth, and how we groom them for the future. The heavy questions of whether it’s all about them rising to the service of society or rather society rising to their service perpetuates, with a central idea about how social belonging is prescribed, not chosen. Will our heroine be a farmer, an aid worker, a lawyer, a defender, or a hoity-toity “erudite”? Or, will she be… something more??
Although the film presents itself as offering plenty of lip service to notions of selflessness and serving others, it then proceeds to spend most of its time inside its main character’s head. Every few scenes, there’s someone placing Tris into a dentist’s chair and firing a needle-gun into her neck, allowing uncomfortable access to her innermost thoughts. In the long, sleepy history of embarrassing movie dream sequences, these are among the lamest and most dull. Twice, we see dream Tris trudging slowly through thick mud – an unintentional commentary on the state of watching this film, if little else.
Beatrice, played by a miscast Shailene Woodley, (who was genuinely great in Alexander Payne’s The Descendents) is a regular, blank slate of a girl (ala Bella Swan?) who lives in blown-up Chicago (looking as though the Transformers just blasted through) with her parents and brother, simply getting by and blending in. When we meet her, she’s wearing grey frumpy clothes and keeping her hair in a tight ponytail. By the end, it’s formfitting spandex with her hair down. This self-actualization from unsure nobody to confident hero is just one of many tired creative shorthands trotted out in the self-serious and derivative Divergent.
Woodley carries her gun and throws her punches like a deer-in-the-headlights ingenue who, on the heels of The Descendents, had this “major opportunity” dropped in her lap by rabid casting agents who took one look at her, squinted, and saw Jennifer Lawrence. The semi-stoic and deep voiced Theo James (Underworld: Awakening), who plays her eventual love interest, is almost a screen presence. This pair may lack chemistry, but they do have a lot of tattoos to show one another. Too bad their romance lacks any heat or interest.
Just because the central allegories of stories like Divergent are painfully obvious doesn’t mean that they’re shallow or unworthy. Society has long insisted upon pigeonholing the populace via standardized testing in real life or ceremonial bloodletting in the world of this film. (Side note: There’s an awful lot of shared knife blades and needles in this future world. You’d think they’d know better…) Yet, everyone sees him or herself as more than just a quadrant on a personality test, or a set or four Myers-Briggs generated letters. Sure, those classifications handily apply to everyone else – they’re very “helpful” in knowing how to handle people, aren’t they? But not you. Of course not you. You are special. How do you know? Society told you! With mixed messages like those, it is any wonder so many people are screwed up, chronically directionless, and/or just plain confused?
Divergent, as much as it intends to, doesn’t help. Rather, it reinforces the already buzzing notions of individual specialness amid a world of uncomfortable conformists that permeates the romantic Western teen mind. We identify with our intentionally bland heroine and her secret that she is among the gifted and cursed few who embody all five virtues of societal belonging. She is “divergent”. And for that, evil Kate Winslet and the heads of state want to kill her. Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) manages a semi-engaging final twenty minutes of action, but this alone is not payoff enough for all that precedes it.
Apparently the obligatory follow-up books in Roth’s popular series are already in pre-production, meaning that we’ll only have more Divergent to sit through in years to come. A bleak future, no doubt – worthy of the film’s reality. Wake me when it’s all over.
This review originally appeared at Twitchfilm.com.