Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: Divergent

by Adam Riske
I don’t want to watch Shailene Woodley shoot people. With that in mind, Divergent is entertaining enough for the first 90 minutes and then it devolves into 50 minutes of what was coined on the podcast recently as "fucking murder."

I am a big fan of much of the cast of Divergent, which is why I saw the movie. It succeeds where it does because the cast is strong. I’m at the point where I’ll watch Shailene Woodley in anything because she elevates crap like Divergent with her screen presence and likeability. Seriously, I love this actress; she has great range, is adorable and I want to braid her hair.

The movie also has small roles for my boys Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort, although it’s weird seeing Teller and Woodley (who played a totes cute couple OMG in The Spectacular Now) go up against one another in hand-to-hand combat. Seriously, this movie is weird. Women get beat up. A lot. This worries me because the girl-power action movie, made popular by The Hunger Games, is now teaching young women that getting their ass kicked by men is part of their journey? I don’t know a ton about feminism but I’m pretty sure that’s not one of its tenets. Oh yeah, and just because you’re a girl that doesn’t mean you can’t shoot a ton of people too. Because you’re the chosen one so it’s all good???  Ugh, this movie is categorically irresponsible.
The plot in brief: Divergent is the first entry in a series of YA novels by Veronica Roth. The film adaptation directed by Neil Burger (of The Illusionist and Limitless – both fine, but one and dones) depicts a post-war decrepit Chicago where football doesn’t exist and no one drinks pop. Talk about science fiction! Instead, the survivors are broken out into five factions – of which I can’t remember the names so I’ll describe them: wussy liberals, hippies, assholes who tell the truth regardless of tact, step up 2the military and the hard-core tea party who don’t respect that the liberals are in charge of the government. If you don’t fit into one of the five, then you are fucking homeless which, based on my recent trip to San Francisco, is not what you want to be. So, like, find a faction, mate! Also, you really don’t want to be Divergent (i.e. not fitting into one of the factions because you have characteristics of several). If you are, you are basically too scary to live and everyone will want to kill you.

Our heroine, Tris (Woodley), tests out as Divergent, but with the help of Maggie Q (she’s on that WB show you don’t watch) is passed through as a liberal. You can choose which house (er, faction) you want to be in, though, so Tris decides to become a cirque de so’murderer because it appears to be all leather jackets, tattoos, climbing and jumping. Plus, all the young cute people are in this group -- it’s not a tough choice to make. Will her faction find out she’s Divergent, or will she be able to hide her secret?

That predicament provides the most interesting portion of the movie, which is the theme of hiding your identity in order to fit in with a clique. Tris has to adhere to all of the standards of her new faction but hide who she truly is – namely her compassion and intelligence. They want her to be a solider, which appeals to her daredevil and adventurer side, but is that enough? It provides an interesting parallel to the peer pressures of every teenager. This is all in the first 90 minutes. So are the most exciting action sequences.
I dislike training sequences in movies because they are usually unrealistic and often all the same. The ones in Divergent are no different, but they are interesting and surprisingly exciting because director Neil Burger makes a neat choice of putting us in Tris’ shoes where the audience has no idea what to expect next. It keeps things brisk with lots of forward momentum – one moment, Tris is jumping off an elevated train onto a rooftop and then down 100 feet to be caught by a net, next she’s climbing up the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier and later hang-gliding across downtown Chicago. It’s all dumb but fun. But then the fun stops and the last hour left a bad taste in my mouth.

The climax of the movie (with the requisite cliff-hanger for the next chapter, of course) devolves into a bizarre shoot-out when the tea party takes over the military group with a brain serum and orders them to execute the liberals and sniff out the Divergents among the factions, namely the military group. Kate Winslet plays the head of the tea party, Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn play Tris’ parents who are part of the liberal agenda and Mekhi Pheiffer is the leader of the military group. These performances are all fine, although I could go another lifetime not seeing an Ashley Judd and Shailene Woodley shoot out. It’s just dumb-looking. I did not enjoy this part of the movie. Political allegory or not*, I don’t want to see the heroine of an action series have to kill people (albeit in self-defense, but by the hundreds it seems) to escape oppression.

I have to own up to being a hypocrite here, though. I don’t know if I would have had the same problem if the lead character of Divergent were male. Maybe the fact that it is a woman calls attention to what a troubling onslaught it is. In all honesty, it’s not that far off from the shootout near the end of The Matrix. I think I’m ok with The Matrix doing it because a) they are adults and not teens on the offensive; b) they are shooting virtual reality avatars and not real people (Divergent is even more mean-spirited because the military folks being shot are carrying out their evil orders via mind control) and c) The Matrix is an R-rated movie not targeted at teenagers.
Being a knock-off of many other YA series including Twilight, Divergent also has the requisite love story between Tris and her team leader Four (Theo James, who resembles if Cary Elwes and James Franco had a baby). The two have an ok chemistry, but James is kind of a stiff from the Alex Pettyfer  school. Four is dreamy and, like, totally protects Tris from the mean Eric (played by Jai Courtney as a dickface because he has a dickface), who does not have a boner for Tris. He only has a boner for unhappiness.

is pretty much what I expected it to be. It feels extremely derivative of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, etc. The script is garbage and the message is troubling but the cast works overtime to make it go down a little more smoothly. I wasn’t bored and, at times, was reasonably entertained. However, you’re probably fine skipping it. I think this series is not going to get better, only worse. If you do catch it, it’s not the end of the world.

*It’s somewhat impossible to ignore the anti-conservative message of the movie. Be warned if that type of thing bothers you. The movie also thinks the “smart” people are all evil, so there’s that too. And that the military is bad. In fact, the movie kind of only sides with you if you are a liberal who can kick some ass and has tattoos. So, I guess I’m the target audience and maybe not teenage girls? Food for thought. Speaking of which, I’m hungry but I suspect this airplane only has shitty food. And they’re showing Delivery Man. I’m going to ask the captain if I can ride on the wing.


  1. Interesting review, although I must confess I haven't seen the movie and probably won't. Your comparison to The Matrix reminds me of how troubling one of the action scenes in that movie is to me. When Neo and Trinity go into the building in the end there is a slow-motion scene where they take out every single security guard in the lobby. It's done in a very fetishized manner, and is clearly meant to be a "cool" sequence. What makes it uncomfortable is that these aren't evil minions, but rather everyday Joes just doing their jobs. They are in effect slaves. You mention that the heroes are shooting virtual reality avatars rather than people, but the film makes clear that dying in the matrix means dying in real life. The film does give the heroes a rationale for their actions, in that every human still connected to the matrix is another potential body for an agent to jump into. I suppose it bugs me for 2 reasons: the stylized "cool" technique, and the numb "cool" manner that Neo and Trinity adopt while they're massacring these guys by the bushel. I would find the scene much easier to take if there was some recognition in Neo and Trinity that they are in effect killing innocents, and some reluctance at having to do so.

    1. I was always unclear if the security guards in 'the matrix' were truly ever people in the 'real world'. It's been a long time since I've seen the movie but were all of the avatars in the matrix supposed to have real flesh-and-blood counterparts?

      I completely understand where you're coming from with your discomfort over that scene though. I still like the movie but it's hard to overlook that. It was more pronounced for me in something like Wanted where tons of innocent people are just done away with because they are background to the story being told with no regard whatsoever.

    2. Yes, the peeps in the Matrix are flesh and blood, except for the programs running around that appear in the sequels, and the Agents. So when our protagonists kill people, they die for good. But the movie tries to sell it as a terrible life being in the Matrix, so what the heroes of the story grant is a better existence than slavery to the machine. I find it troubling to justify murder of supposed sinners or slaves to free them, but without their consent. This subtext could have been made text with a praying or meditation scene before plugging in, but thankfully that was left out.

      All the while the movie is entertaining with hyper-stylized action and other mysteries. A movie cleverly told.

      Wanted tries to play the Fate card, so there is no fault to be assigned but to the cosmos, or God. Modern folks are not on board with fate as a character in a story (myself included) so the progression of events does seem callous and unmotivated. A movie not so cleverly told!

  2. I do find the most interesting thing about these YA movies is the direct gender swap occurring. What if the lead were a man (or boy)? You address it head on, and don't come to an answer, which is fine. Entertaining the question is enough.

    But I had the same thought with Hunger Games. I thought Catniss was a little boring, and Peeta pathetic. The Matrix doesn't work as a comparison here since both leads kick a lot of ass, but compare to Flash Gordon where the lead male there is boring and the chick is worthless and I'm not annoyed as much. Admittedly a terrible movie, but it's the only thing I could think of for some reason. Maybe a better comparison to this movie might be Indiana Jones where Harrison Ford is charismatic (like Woodley) but we don't necessarily want to see him murder 100's of folks.

    Can someone supply a better analogy than me? What's a movie that mirrors this with the gender roles reversed? There are so many, but my brain is not cooperating.

    1. I'm going to stick up for myself here. My Matrix comparison is strong. I disagree. There is no need to come up with a better analogy.

      Even though we disagree, thank you for reading and commenting.

    2. Sorry, the analogy I was looking for was with the Hunger Games, not Divergent. I haven't seen Divergent, so I cannot comment. How far does it extend though? From a character perspective, would you say Tris = Neo? Sounds a bit like it from the way she doesn't fit in and is just thrown into action that she does not understand. But then has to murder a bunch of peeps in a form of 'self defense' just like Neo.

      Also, just ANOTHER comparison would be nice. Yours is good (allegedly), but what about more?

      If you want to disagree with something, I would disagree that the love story is a YA influence. Every damn movie has a love story in it, but usually it is a heroic man with a boring girl he must protect. Sure, the romance in Twilight is especially terrible, but so is the romance in the Star Wars prequels, or Hard Target, or (again) Flash Gordon. None of these movies strike me as particularly YA, but mainstream movies.

      Too bad the political metaphor is so blunt. I rather enjoy my sci-fi to be far enough removed from today that the comparisons are just a little opaque. Although I liked Elysium, so go figure.

  3. I did not see this movie. Comparing Divergent to the Muppets, my weekend choice seemed obvious.

    In response to the Matrix thing, that movie sends some very mixed signals as to whether the people have flesh and blood bodies, or are AI. The film was cast with a lot of twins, as if the Matrix robot duders got lazy and copy+pasted some models, which leads me to believe that SOME people in the Matrix are digital projections of actual people, whilst some are just a part of the illusion. So I'd argue your analogy still stands.

  4. Watched Divergent a few days ago and had about the same reaction as in Adam's review. A pretty bad film, overall. To be honest, I found myself getting annoyed at the godawful weapons used in it. It gave me the impression that this film should be more accurately classified as steampunk, rather than just science fiction in general. They looked like they came out of some fifties space opera (I'm totally making shit up, now). Theoretically, the film can't be set that far into the future. Surely, it would make more sense to just use the weapons humankind developed before the shitstorm went down.

  5. I lasted just over 4 minutes before stopping this movie. It was so soul-crushingly derivative I saved myself 2 hours of my life that I would otherwise have squandered on this chick-flick spruced up in generic scifi clothing.

  6. judging by the way we can no longer say what we want, think what we would like, everyone MUST be equal, and the government needs to dictate everyones lives, your idea of the conservatives being the bad guys in this is WAY off. last I checked it is liberals who are behind every one of those things I listed lately...