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With: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller
Written by: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor, based on a novel by Veronica Roth
Directed by: Neil Burger
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
Running Time: 139
Date: 03/21/2014

Divergent (2014)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Made Up Factions

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I wonder if the bar for all these young adult, sci-fi/fantasy/romance movies has been set too low? Could it be that teenage brains are too underdeveloped to comprehend more complex ideas and richer themes, or is it that studios and filmmakers simply assume so, based on what has worked before?

The new Divergent is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, which might have been fine if it had anything at all to say about its many salvaged parts. It uses the most common attributes of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and uses them in the same ways that they have already been used, not only in several films from the past several months, but in a large handful of films made within the last fifty years.

Perhaps the most important is the idea of the individual versus the collective. In Divergent, a futuristic society has been divided up into five groups, the warriors, the thinkers, the farmers, etc. This has been done to ensure peace. Not much wiggle room is allowed between the five factions. People are not allowed to change their minds. If a person does not fit into a faction, they are basically cast out, turned into homeless scavengers. Worse, if a person is a "divergent," i.e. they have many attributes for many factions, then they are hunted down and destroyed. The movie does not talk at all about the difference between the factionless and the divergents. This all suggests that the faction system is more like a dictatorship, finding "peace" by ruling through fear. It doesn't sound promising.

If the movie were to even approach being good, it would have to make an argument about what was actually appealing about the five faction system, or why it worked (and has, apparently, worked for 100 years). Certainly there are reasons people get involved in collectives, such as togetherness, support, or a sense of power. The theme of the individual versus the collective was ably explored in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Matrix, rather brilliantly explored in last year's The World's End, and rather bluntly laid out in things like 1984, Elysium, Upside Down, and The Hunger Games. As it is, Divergent presents it as a purely evil idea, wherein factions battle with one another, and secret plans are hatched to destroy one another. Moreover, leaders will kill to keep the faction system in place. There's no wiggle room in this theme; it's presented from one side only.

Next up is the old "Chosen One" theme, in which one character is somehow special and will make the changes necessary to turn society back into a free place. I've never been crazy about these stories, and even less so that they seem to be used more and more frequently (Dune, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, The Last Airbender, Avatar, Ender's Game, and even spoofed in The Lego Movie). It seems to me that they make the story a foregone conclusion, rather than an organic, living struggle. But I suppose these characters appeal to teens, who might believe that they, themselves are destined for something special (and may well be).

Of course, Divergent is also a romance, in which our chosen one, Tris (Shailene Woodley) falls for dreamboat "Four" (Theo James), with his slightly stubbled square jaw, and his large intense eyes. Once again, I suppose this stuff makes teen girls swoon, but it seems to me that these characters wouldn't have time for romance. The best -- by far -- young adult movies, the Harry Potter series, had romance only as an afterthought, and only between two of the secondary characters, who seemed genuinely surprised and flabbergasted to find themselves in love during all the commotion.

Then, there's the whole "series" aspect, which drives me nuts. Once upon a time a young adult novelist like S.E. Hinton would just write books, telling stories. Now a young adult book can't just be a young adult book. It has to be a series, mainly for money reasons. And of course, the final book in the series has to be split into two movies, also mainly for money reasons.

As a pure entertainment, Divergent works for a while. Basically, Tris is tested for the faction that she must choose, and she's revealed to be a "divergent." She chooses the Dauntless faction, the warrior faction, which of course requires rigorous, dangerous training, plus the threat that the "losers" will not make the final cut and will become factionless (this is, of course, a new rule made up just now). One of her trainers is "Four" -- named after his four fears -- and he tries to protect her and help her. Eventually, an evil plot comes to light: the faction of thinkers, the Erudite faction, puts the new Dauntless soldiers under mind control and forces them to wipe out Tris's former faction, Abnegation. Tris tries to protect them, and her divergent status is discovered, leading to a big chase/fight, and a showdown with the main bad guy, Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet).

Some other actors appear, such as Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn as Tris's parents, Lenny Kravitz's daughter Zoe as a fellow Dauntless recruit, Maggie Q as a tattoo artist and Dauntless tester, Jai Courtney as an evil Dauntless teacher (he sneers through all of his dialogue), and Mekhi Phifer as a Dauntless leader. Miles Teller plays a bully in the Dauntless ranks, constantly picking on Tris; these two starred in the terrific The Spectacular Now together, and you'd never have any idea that they once shared some strong chemistry. None of these actors are onscreen long enough, or has enough to do, to say anything more.

Woodley, at least, is a promising actor, who uses her frailty to good effect, as well as her strength. Plus, aside from her cascade of beautiful movie star hair, she looks more or less like a normal teenage girl.

Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones, Limitless) is certainly talented, and it's a credit to him that he keeps things interesting and exciting for as long as he does before the story gets bogged down in seriousness as well as its tiresome length. In all, I can't help comparing the movie studios that crank out these young adult fantasies to the evil organizations in the movies themselves, the ones that seek to control young minds and prevent them from thinking freely. I can only hope that, somewhere out there in the audience, is a young Tris that rejects movies like Divergent and demands something more thoughtful and relevant.

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