The spate of big-budget adaptations of dystopian, militaristic YA novels continues with Divergent, and while these would-be “franchises” are certainly more interesting than the teen pics and sex comedies of my youth (and more in sync with a social order that is, for various ecological and political reasons, increasingly untenable), this particular specimen has a weirdly inapt foundation.
The conceit is that, in an unspecified future, Chicago is a walled compound wherein humans are split into factions that conform to an individual’s temperament. A more selfless person, for example, will belong to “Abnegation,” eschew vanity, and tend to the needy. The vaulting jocks and daredevils are “Dauntless” and serve as society’s protectors. “Amity” is for friendly people. The novelist, Veronica Roth, reserves her loathing for the “Erudites,” who spend their days in intellectual pursuit. She appears to be one in a long line of religious conservatives (her first acknowledgement is to God, “for your Son”) who think there’s nothing more dangerous than intellectualism, which makes people apt to seize power and impose Maoist-like uniformity on entire populations — on pain of death. I happen to share her belief that some ideologies (Maoism among them) can lead humans to commit horrific acts. But it seems to me that knowledge is our best hope against the sort of brainwashing that produces true conformity, and that Roth’s view of higher education has another agenda altogether.
But we can all agree that too much of any one “humor” (as the Elizabethans would put it) is a bad thing. In this society, the greatest evil is to be something called a “Divergent,” meaning you have varied impulses and, in the logic of the book, cannot be controlled. Divergents are secretly murdered, and that’s the fate that seems in store for our teenage heroine and narrator, Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley). How do the rulers know if a person is divergent? They have the technology to project a person’s drug-induced visions on monitors and extrapolate from there. Elvis Costello once sang, “Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?” but in this world your crimes of the mind become mini-movies.
Beatrice was born into Abnegation but is turned on by the sight of the pierced and muscular Dauntless faction leaping off trains and having a high old time. So at the appropriate moment she converts and begins the long training process at the heart of most YA scenarios. In Dauntless headquarters, she befriends other newbies best described in single adjectives: sassy Christina (Zoe Kravitz), sardonic Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), and adoring lump Al (Christian Madsen). She gets beaten to a pulp by sneering Peter (Miles Teller) while the merciless, studded leader, Eric (Jai Courtney), looks on in satisfaction. Dwarfing all in her mind is one of the trainers, who calls himself “Four” and is played by Theo James, a heartthrob who looks to be assembled from the best parts of Channing Tatum, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Tom Hardy, and other brooding hotties. He’s quite a find, this guy. By the time the movie ended, my daughter had foresworn allegiance to every other teen idol and was firmly in the faction of Four.
Often these movies come down to whether you like looking at the lead actor’s face for two hours, and Divergent has a pip in Shailene Woodley. In her Abnegation phase, she allows herself to look rather plain, but her unusually dark eyes flicker in dissatisfaction with her enforced subservience: Her mask slides and is hastily reaffixed. Woodley’s responses are subtle but intense, and she ends up doing a lot of the screenwriters’ work for them. When Tris becomes a Dauntless, Woodley shows how she can’t conceal her softness — her skin flushes too easily. She’s too emotional to turn her back on her Abnegating parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) or the brother (Ansel Elgort) who has defected to the Erudites.
The Erudites, by the way, hate hate hate the Abnegators, who stand in the way of progress (i.e., mind control) — an idea in line with religious conservatives’ belief that university intellectuals wish to stamp them out along with their faith, perhaps with the aid of Obama Death Panels. Kate Winslet plays Jeanine, the spokesman for the Erudites, and while she’s not nearly as embarrassing as Jodie Foster in Elysium, her tense performance doesn’t begin to rise above a script that has her hissing about human nature being a weakness.
If you can forget what it’s saying, Divergent is fairly entertaining. The director is Neil Burger, who made the evocative The Illusionist and the good B thriller, Limitless, and he’s deft at showing us the world through Tris’s eyes — the factions that attract and repel her, the glimpses of her reflection that make her at once guilty and fascinated. But the second half of the film is edited too quickly, probably to cut down on the running time but maybe also to ensure that all violence remains safely in the realm of the kid-friendly PG-13. Key moments go by too fast, among them the tortured Al’s betrayal of Tris and his subsequent fate. Violence in movies like Divergent is a difficult balance: You don’t want the filmmaker to ladle on the gore and become exploitive, but you don’t want the killing to go by so quickly that it’s easily digested as mere action-movie fodder. At least we get a hint of the atrocities in Woodley’s eyes.
It’s worth pointing out that Teller paired beautifully with Woodley in the superb The Spectacular Now, and that Elgort is her great love in the forthcoming adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars. Woodley’s apparent eagerness to work with former co-stars (and theirs to work with her) warms my heart and suggests the makings of a YA stock company.