I’ve watched enough movies to know that not everything is for me. I can usually prepare myself to watch some title that wasn’t made with my particular sensibilities or tastes in mind and as a critic I try to take me out of it and see from the perspective of the target audience. And then there are some movies that just make me angry and no amount of putting myself in the shoes of the intended recipient can change that. The latter occurred when watching Divergent, another in a line of teenage-female-centric pseudo-sci-fi/horror film based on a book. Yes, there’s a line of them. This is a movie that is so drab, so boring, so insultingly uninteresting that it makes me sad that this is the kind of narrative and heroine that young girls are meant to strive to be like. It’s as though the writer (of the book or the movie; very likely both) simply watched The Hunger Games, cracked open the Cliff’s Notes of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, added soap opera romance, and called the damn thing Divergent, presumably because Derivative was too on the nose.
Directed by The Illusionist and Limitless director Neil Burger, Divergent, based on the first in a trilogy of novels by Veronica Roth, is about as paint-by-numbers as a story can get without actually just being a reprinted painting. The characters lack any depth, the situations are ludicrous, and the general conceit of the world is so destined to fail that it’s a wonder it lasted until the lead character could tear it down. The movie isn’t a mess; it’s a very shiny, glossy, well-assembled series of images that can be called a movie, but everything about it, and I’m assuming the novels as well, scream “cash in!” with Twilight and Hunger Games-fueled dollar signs blinking behind every corner.
We’re told via voice over in a gutted and overgrown Chicago that the people who exist fall into various Factions and almost never leave them. Every person upon reaching a certain, inevitably teenage part of their life has to take a test to see which of these Factions they are best suited for, and then they have to make their own decision via a blood ritual. Each of the Factions represents a part of society based on their personality type and intellect. Some of the people are smart and so they’re called Erudite, some people are selfless and are called Abnegation, etc. Our heroine, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) has grown up in Abnegation but has always wanted to be a Dauntless, the brave folk who act as the peacekeepers and soldiers, and who are represented by acting recklessly and violently, because bravery apparently means foolhardy as well.
Beatrice, who takes to calling herself “Tris” because its way cooler, takes the test and it comes back inconclusive, which means she’s a “Divergent,” or a person who isn’t merely one of the five incredibly vague and impossible to isolate traits. She’s instructed to choose Abnegation at the ceremony and just live her life quietly. But she doesn’t! She chooses Dauntless and then spends the bulk of the rest of the movie training to be that, with absurdly difficult tasks and feats of strength she’s expected to pull off perfectly despite having grown up in a Faction that never taught her to fight or shoot guns. Notice a flaw already?
One of her superior officers is named Four (Theo James) and he’s the dreamiest, you guys. He is clearly much more sensitive than any of the other Dauntless a-holes and that makes him interesting. They start to fall for each other because it’s a movie and they’re both pretty. He’s also a Divergent, turns out, and he needs to help her with her final drug-fueled test wherein the Erudite will get to see her results. She has to act Dauntless and not Divergent or she’ll be taken away forever. While all this is going on, a plot to overthrow the Abnegation government by the Erudite is hatching and the leader played by Kate Winslet, who the credits tell me is named Jeanine, wants to use the Dauntless to do her dirty work. But, maybe Tris can overthrow the overthrowers before it’s too late. Did I say maybe? I meant “Obviously.”
This movie is simply an affront to movies. They’re superficially making something to appeal to the impressionable an unsure tween girl demographic and while Shailene Woodley is a very good actress, the character of Tris is nothing to look up to. She’s so milquetoast and weak that it really is a wonder she makes it as far as she does in the almost perpetual training montages of the middle of the movie. She’s brave, yes, and clearly caring and clever, but she doesn’t do anything with those attributes. She doesn’t come up with plans herself, she doesn’t want to enact change, she allows Four to tell her what to do. The “Mentor” in stories is supposed to guide and allow the hero to make their own decisions, not just simply tell them exactly what to do and then help them do it/almost do it for them. How are girls supposed to look up to that?
Everything about this just felt like a money-making scheme first and a story worth telling thirty-eighth. It made money and three more films (based on the two other books, natch) are already in the works, and probably would have been regardless. This was a movie that had a built-in fanbase and they expected a certain amount of cash simply from that. They got it, they’re making more, those will probably make money regardless of quality, and *everyone will be happy.
There probably are young women who were and are excited to see this movie because of its female main character, and I want them to be excited by things of that nature. Not enough movies are made for them, especially in a genre other than romantic comedy, and it’s something that needs to change. But, for pity’s sake, can filmmakers take some responsibility to their audiences here? Maybe give them characters who are worth rooting for and situations that feel like some amount of care was put into it. This movie is garbage, and if you haven’t seen it don’t bother. If you’re a fan of the books or other stories like this, I’m sorry. You were not served well at all.
*those who stand to make money from it