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Divergent

March 21, 2014
Divergent

Yet another entry in the race for the next huge young-adult film franchise, Divergent is of course “based on a worldwide bestseller”. By now I’m seriously wondering what exactly qualifies a young-adult novel as a “bestseller”, and if there are any that don’t. Again we’ve got a preposterous dystopia calculated to play directly to the lamest of adolescent wish-fulfillment dreams. Yes, The Hunger Games doesn’t exactly hold up to close scrutiny, but at least it’s not actively stupid on so regular a basis.

Of course, this being a dystopian fantasy, we’ve got a lot of world-building to do. It’s the future — specifically our future, since the story is set in the ruins of Chicago — after some unspecified apocalyptic war. The population has walled themselves up in the city — except for some unprotected farmlands outside — and instituted a new social system based on five “factions”. Each faction possesses some particular trait and occupies some social niche, and each was seemingly named by opening a thesaurus and stabbing randomly at the entry for their particular trait.

“Dauntless” is the warrior faction, marked by bravery; they defend the city. Honest citizens belong to “Candor”, and handle the judicial system. “Amity” is for peaceful, generous folk; these are the farmers, because evidently being peaceful makes you better with plants for some reason. The most intelligent people are “Erudite”, charged with science and research. Finally, “Abnegation” is made up of those selfless citizens who are particularly good finders. No, seriously, they’re generous and kind and have been left in charge of running the whole system since they’re the ones who won’t get greedy about it.

Right off the bat, it seems pretty hard to tell the difference between Abnegation and Amity, other than the fact that one farms and one makes decisions. It’s also hard to see what value honesty and intellect have without each other. For that matter, why would selflessness matter for the decision-makers if they’re not honest as well; wouldn’t Candor’s incorruptibility lead to its own de facto selflessness? And doesn’t a certain amount of self-sacrifice go along with the bravery Dauntless requires? Why do the police, the lawyers, the scientists, the executives, and the farmers all require equal numbers of workers? And I haven’t even yet mentioned the factionless: a mass of outcasts who seem to live in the city, not contributing to the social welfare at all, living off the scraps of the other factions. How can this fragile society support such a waste of resources? And why are two of the factions’ names adjectives while the other three are nouns? The questions go on and on; I’d love to see a sociologist tear this whole thing to shreds more effectively than I could.

So Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is born into Abnegation, but when she comes of age she undergoes a test to determine her aptitude. She receives a drug that causes her to hallucinate, and the tester can watch the hallucination on an external readout, because of “neurotransmitters”. The whole thing is full of burningly-stupid malapropisms like that, and we’ll get nowhere if I start trying to catalogue them.

But Beatrice doesn’t show a single area of strength; she shows aptitude for Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. Rather than multiply-gifted individuals being valuable assets, this “divergence” is seen as a threat to the whole system. If she’s good at many things, she could qualify for many different factions, and could be useful in any of them. And the testing isn’t even binding; anyone can choose their own faction anyway, even if they do just show a single strength. That said, the test results are recorded and not kept very secret, so the choice isn’t quite so free as it would seem, but the story isn’t really smart enough to probe that gap. But the upshot is that, of course, Beatrice has to be the most special person around, except for the even-more-gifted obligatory heartthrob who will show up later.

Beatrice’s tester enters Abnegation for her, but she chooses Dauntless — and the nickname “Tris” — in part because a paramilitary training regimen is probably the easiest to write. She wins the approval of one training leader, Four (Theo James), and the disapproval of another, Eric (Jai Courtney). And her personal drama plays out as Erudite starts using Dauntless to mount a coup against Abnegation’s rule.

If none of this makes a lick of sense, relax; it’s probably for the best. To buy any of this ridiculous caricature from a libertarian’s nightmares you’d have to be a teenager, or at least have the mentality of one. You can just hear the petulant rant, “society, like, tries to put people in boxes, man, and I’m not gonna play by their rules. I didn’t ask to be born into this world, dad.” I’m sure the high schoolers will eat it up.

The one good thing here is Neil Burger’s visual style. It does look great, though it falls far short of his work on Limitless. But the prettiest face in the world doesn’t do much good if a torrent of burning stupid comes out every time the mouth opens.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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