Film Review: DIVERGENT
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mehki Phifer and Kate Winslet
Directed by Neil Burger
Screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor
Based on the book by Veronica Roth
Produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian
Executive Producers, John J. Kelly, Rachel Shane
“Divergent,” a futuristic, science-fiction film based on the popular book by first-time writer Veronica Roth, who wrote the book while an undergraduate, fails to live up to its promising potential to present and consider a scary fascist, oppressive future society and instead ends up being just another big-budget average film that nosedives into confusion, teenybopper (or twentysomethingbopper) corniness, and sadly wastes the opportunity that was buried somewhere in the original book, script and story construction. “Divergent” wants so hard to be the next “Hunger Games,” “Twilight,” “Matrix” or “Harry Potter,” but the film falters under its own pretensions and good intentions and instead collapses under the weight of its over-arching story. Much like “The Monuments Men” from just a few weeks ago, this is a film that started out with a promising story, premise and concept, but the subsequent direction, writing and acting just don’t live up to that underlying potential, with both films suffering from awkward direction, cluttered and confusing storytelling and writing, and sub-standard acting among some, but not all, members of the cast.
“Divergent” is the type of film that in better hands, could have been an extremely suspenseful, thoughtful, riveting and adventurous analysis of human nature in a tightly-controlled, big-brotherish, horrendously paranoid and terrifyingly fascist futuristic society. Although the production design and some of the veteran actors rise above the mediocrity, the direction, writing and acting never overcome their inherent problems, and the film joins the scores of similarly-failed big-budget science-fiction, fantasy, horror, comic book, video game and superhero films in recent years that, despite the over-saturated hype and marketing, simply end up being akin to those various bits and pieces of discarded items that clutter your junk draw in the kitchen or dining room—a junk yard or junk drawer of disappointing sci-fi, fantasy and horror films.
Hollywood producers, directors and writers need to keep a close eye on that junk drawer, that junk yard, because they are getting more and more full with each passing year. If Hollywood executives are not careful, that junk draw will collapse under its own weight—and bring down all of the other, better drawers with it. And with increasing competition from new media and new ways to view films, that collapse is not something that Hollywood can afford in these times.
The first step to guard against this sad parade of big-budget average sci-fi and fantasy films like “Divergent”—besides the goes-without-saying steps of making sure you have a solid, intelligent, original script with solid, experienced actors led by a director who knows how to direct in an original, inventive manner—is to stop relying on simple youthful romance and youthful good looks to support a sci-fi or fantasy story, to stop relying solely on big-budget special effects at the expense of other qualities, and to stop trying to copy every other film out there that luckily broke even or made a profit. Another step is to stop constantly cursing the moviegoing public with horrid, ridiculously-bad and obviously unoriginal sequels, prequels, remakes, rehashes, re-inventions, re-visits and rip-offs. Producers will whine that these are what pull in the big bucks, but that’s not always true, that doesn’t really matter if you really want to make a quality film, and, besides, there is always a constant backlash to most of these films—only a prized few actually break through the slime and actually make a profit.
And, besides, every science-fiction, fantasy and horror fan knows one constant fact that, for some strange and mysterious reason—maybe it’s the smog, perhaps it’s just plain ignorance and ineptitude—film producers, directors and writers consistenly do not seem to know or understand: If you really want to make a quality adaptation of a science fiction, fantasy or horror book that has not been done before and that is original and that will present a great story, well, there are literally thousands of novels and short stories that have yet to be made into films. Fans have constantly lamented—for decades now, actually—that Hollywood turns to moronic, simple crud repeatedly while some great classics of the genres sit on bookshelves untouched, un-purchased (amazingly, in many cases), un-written in screenplay format, and even un-pursued in some cases. There are simply thousands of quality genre stories waiting to be told, by hundreds of talented, inventive authors—and they are ignored and remain untouched, year after year. On many levels, it’s just basically unbelievable.
So the film world gets average films like “Divergent.” And “After Earth.” And literally most of the big-budget genre films from the summer and holiday seasons for about the past 15 years.
Sigh. All you can do is just sigh. And hope that these under-appreciated titles will some day be discovered and made into quality films.
Meanwhile, we have to deal with “Divergent,’ which, again, starts out with a quite promising premise and concept that appears to have potential, but ultimately fails with sub-standard direction, writing and acting.
When the initial plot outline is described, sci-fi fans could be hooked—initially: In a futuristic, somewhat-apocalyptic devastated society in a damaged, burned-out Chicago surrounded by a huge fence to protect itself from potentially-threatening outside forces, that big-brotherish society has been divided into five factions, Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity and Candor. The Abnegation focus on, and believe in, selflessness-they are akin to Amish and Mennonite belief systems, in some ways, as they choose to live simply, rely less on material things and have less luxury items in their life. The Erudite are focused on academics, studying, intellectualism and science, and they can be cookie-cutter, form-fitting, sterile, bland and bookish. The Amity members are somewhat feel-good, granola, hippie-ish farmers who try to just farm and focus on peace and love. The Dauntless are the seemingly young, youthful, athletic, strong and cool kids who run, jump, climb, get nutty tattoos and piercings and try and protect everyone else with macho posturing, secret initiations, overly-physical training and moronic one-upmanship that borders on psycho mental instability and outright insanity, some type of nightmare combination of every crazy secret cult society that ended up killing itself or other people. The fifth faction in this dangerously-divided society is Candor, and they try to focus on honesty above all else, and try to approach everything with straight-ahead honesty.
Sooner or later, every citizen has to take a so-called “aptitude” test—which in the film is misrepresented as something more like torture, which doesn’t work in the context of the film—and the test is supposed to suggest which faction is best for each person. However, at a public “choosing ceremony,” every person can pick one of the factions to join regardless of the aptitude test, and they choose their action entirely on their own. However, there is a catch—once they join the faction they choose, they can’t change factions. That is because the evil overlords of this whacked-out society are so frightened of anything resembling rebellion or true, open free will and freedom, they strive to keep people confined to factions to control society and keep things peaceful. And if someone doesn’t fit it or make it in their chosen faction, they become factionless—and end up literally on the streets, homeless, with no family and no support network to help them out.
Fully granted, it’s a fascinating, interesting, original, inventive and promising premise and concept. There is nothing but kudos to offer Ms. Roth for coming up with a great outline and concept that does present some twists and turns on futuristic societies in science fiction.
Even an explanation by producer Douglas Wick in the studio’s production notes presents a promising story. ““One of the things that really drew us to this world was it was a utopian dystopia, it wasn’t just futile hopelessness,” Wick says. “A lot of dystopian worlds are hopeless, but this was a place that had a dream. There was a sense that people had at least reached for a better way of life. They had higher aspirations that are now that in decline. The dream is juxtaposed with everything that is failing. We love stories about empowerment. From the very beginning you take a character, Tris, and you create unbelievable obstacles for her and you show her finding the inner resources to overcome them. That’s a story that works great on the big screen.”
Not in the case of “Divergent,” alas. Not so fast, Mr. Wick. While your quote is eloquent and well-stated, even your quote and viewpoint end up being better than the resultant film. Roth’s basic premise may have just been too much for this particular group of filmmakers.
The first misstep is the bare-bones screenplay, which somehow tends to quickly forget about and dispense with most of the factions, their intentions, their politics, their interactions, their problems, early in the film, and instead turns to focusing on the main character Tris, disappointingly portrayed by young actress Shailene Woodley, and Tris’ tired, clichéd and corny militaristic initiation into the Dauntless faction (unoriginally borrowed from about 1,000 films and film sequences, and not adding anything original to the tired cliché of sequences of initiation, and all of which add absolutely nothing to the movie). Tris—young and energetic and intrigued–decides to join the Dauntless faction against her, and her parents, better judgement. So we get this initiation sequence, which seems to occupy much of the film’s second half, and it, again, ends up meaning, basically, nothing, in a sense, because while Tris’ initiation into Dauntless does connect to the plot, it still takes away from other plot machinations that would have been 100 percent more intriguing, interesting and entertaining.
If the screenplay, credited to Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, had cut the overlong initiation mess down by about, oh, 90 percent, and instead focused on what was going on in the various factions, and had presented some deep, analytical political, social, cultural and sociological overtures in each of the factions, and then explored how the factions functioned, how they interacted, how they dealt with each other, how they dealt with the society’s evil leaders, how they perhaps plotted to overthrow the leaders and the society in general, and how they conducted their business while secretly working out alternate plots—well, that would have been a movie! That would have been suspenseful, intelligent, intriguing and, again, original. How does an academic set function alongside a militaristic set, and how do people focused on farming or focusing on living simple lives steer clear from others who are completely unlike them and may hate them? How do these factions operate with each other, how do they work, exactly?
Unfortunately, the film, directed haltingly and confusingly by Neil Burger, doesn’t delve into this adequately—there are only hints and simplification and suggestions. Again, the film centers on Tris and her dealings with the moronic, dunder-headed, psycho and mentally unstable Dauntless idiots. There are boxing matches, physical challenges, mental challenges, more fights, more stress tests, running, climbing, jumping, running onto moving trains, jumping from moving trains. All that’s missing is Burgess Meredith, Louis Gossett, Jr., Lee Marvin, John Wayne and M and Clint Eastwood standing outside the clichéd boxing ring shouting clichéd sports cliches while Tris and her Dauntless cohorts engage in more cliches. Meanwhile, while Tris is undergoing one physical test after another, viewers may wonder, “What are the other factions doing? Where are her parents? Where’s her brother?”
And, lo and behold, the film finally—after so much initiation and physical and mental tests, the viewer may feel that they just came out of a Bush-era black-op secret CIA torture factory deep in Eastern Europe—gets around to this, as Tris slowly uncovers plots and secrets and intrigue sure enough. But it’s too little, too late. The plots, secrets and intrigue should have been presented earlier, written more strongly, and presented as the sole focus on the film from early on. Instead, while Tris takes her aptitude test, she discovers she doesn’t fit easily into any faction, and she is what’s known as a Divergent—someone generally feared and regarded as an outcast. And someone often marked to be simply killed. So Tris stays in Dauntless, goes through the initiation sequences—yes, for a reason, but, in film aspects, for much too long—and she tries to hide her hidden status as a Divergent.
This is still an intriguing plot device, but, alas, the acting falters in the film, too. Woodley simply is not a strong enough actress to portray the inner conflicts, anguish and angst of someone faces with such a bizarro and life-threatening situation. She is pretty, cute, youthful and athletically thin, and appears to handle her physical demands quite well—but the conflicting emotions are simply not there. The same problem, alas, also applies to her bevy of co-stars, all of whom are young and athletic, but almost to a fault. They are appear to have stepped out of a fashion runway show and are just a bit too pretty and prim for a horrific, oppressive futuristic society. Some grit and grime is required here—that is attempted with one or two characters in the Dauntless faction, but even then, not to the degree that’s needed in this overall context.
Tris does start to rebel against the crazed Dauntless and the even crazier societal leaders, represented blandly by Kate Winslet as the unstable society leader who believes in the factions above all else, and indeed some intrigue does start to kick in—but it all occurs in a rush, in a confused blur, and between corny and tacky romantic interludes that, despite the young leads’ youthful looks, just doesn’t work. The film needs to focus on the intrigue and suspense—not some young pretty models ooing and ahhing amid apocalyptic societal insanity and breakdown. The teenybopper romance schtick just doesn’t work in this context.
And, adding to the pile of problems, when Tris does rebel and takes on Winslet’s crazy leader and the crazy Dauntless during the film’s third act, it’s all so rushed, so diluted, so confusing and so unsatisfactory and incomplete, nothing comes to a satisfactory conclusion, nothing is resolved as it should be, and dozens of unanswered questions are left dangling to no positive affect. What the film’s blurred and confusing third act really needed was a good, solid, James Bond-style conclusion, with the leaders’ headquarters blown up real good, the leaders killed dead and definitely dead, the fences blown up, and the factions freed from their oppressive states. But the film has none of this—just a rush of gunfights and fistfights that never end in, again, a satisfactory, conclusive manner.
The film’s conclusion is irritating, annoying and just plain incomplete, with too many questions left unanswered and unresolved.
The studio behind “Divergent,” Summit Entertainment, is threatening to release an amazing two more films based on two more books in Roth’s series that starts with “Divergent.”
On some levels, that’s far more scary then the scary society presented in “Divergent.”