Monday, 7 April 2014
Divergent, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek
We Chicagoans recently endured one of our worst winters in recorded history. I wonder how many of us, clomping through the slush-laden Loop streets or stuck on bleak highways, saw the Divergent ads on billboards and bus wraps as not only an exciting way to launch spring, but also as a potential to extend our city’s reputation for innovation.
Director Neil Burger had quite a challenge: how to cinematically interpret the first novel of Chicagoland resident Veronica Roth’s international bestselling trilogy? Though the film has somewhat polarized critics and the general public—guess which camp doesn’t like it—Burger has created a work as navigable as Chicago’s gridded street system and as stalwart as the city’s John Hancock Center, which happens to make a cameo.
Divergent offers a future Chicago not of gleaming efficiencies and technological showmanship, but of disrepair and jilted expectations. It’s a city whose slightly modified and sometimes crumbling architectural and transportation icons stand beside yet-to-be-built skyscrapers, a city whose beloved Lake Michigan has degraded into a marsh.
A Prior Engagement
Everyone is grouped into one of five factions, each of which focuses on some value that defines its societal role. The Erudite, for instance, value knowledge and strive to eliminate the ignorance that leads to conflict, while members of the Candor faction value truth and hold positions in the field of law. Each teen takes a test to determine the faction to which he or she is best suited. The test-taker then considers the results when he or she chooses a faction.
Sixteen-year-old protagonist Beatrice Prior, whose Abnegation faction embraces self-denial, discovers that she is one of few with inconclusive test results. Thus, she is “Divergent”. Then Beatrice shocks her family when she chooses the Dauntless faction, a motley collection of thrill-seeking thugs tasked with protecting that society.
Beatrice, now self-titled “Tris”, plunges into a highly competitive and dangerous initiation process in a subculture whose members engage in reckless activities to prove their devotion to what they consider the ultimate virtue: bravery.
The Path to Dauntlessness
The majority of Divergent, the first in a series of three (or possibly four) films, focuses on Tris and other initiates’ gruelling training to obtain the physical and mental strength that characterize the Dauntless ideals.
A variety of challenges put Tris in the underdog category and pump up the tension. First, she is a small girl competing in a faction that doesn’t consider gender or size when it challenges one initiate to fight another. Second, ruthless training leader Eric reveals that some of the initiates will be cut—“It’s a new rule”—and become “factionless” (i.e. homeless and destitute). To compound the challenge, Tris is a transfer from another faction, while many of her competitors have been raised in Dauntless households and thus have a head start. All this occurs amid a background of power struggles among the corrupt Dauntless leadership.
Meanwhile, Tris must conceal her Divergent results from an increasingly threatening Erudite/Dauntless alliance, a kind of brains-meets-brawn powerhouse that targets Divergents because they threaten the rigidity that holds the faction system in place.
Erudite mastermind Jeanine, the main antagonist played by Kate Winslet (who seems to have taken her fashion cues from Hilary Clinton), has used her power to start a smear campaign against the Abnegation faction, whose members occupy the governmental positions within the society. This macro issue escalates and eventually collides with Tris.
A key strength of Divergent is that many of the scenes evoke tension, even for those who’ve read the novels. For instance, Burger tautly renders the Choosing Ceremony, in which adolescents make proud or disappoint their parents. The families, separated in groups within an amphitheatr, watch as their sons and daughters drop blood into a bowl that represents the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives.
The film also introduces a burgeoning love interest between Tris and Four, a reserved Dauntless trainer with a troubled past. Four is much more subdued than the brutish and envious Eric. Still, Four is no pushover: one of the first things he says to Tris is something like, “What makes you think you can talk to me?” Charming.
Actor Theo James offers an acceptable, but not necessarily riveting performance as this pivotal character. Four speaks through his actions, like when he hurls knives around Tris’s head as she stands immobile to prove her bravery. How romantic.
As Four reveals more of himself to Tris, he comes to embody the film’s theme. Among the tapestry of tattoos on his back are symbols of each of the five factions. “I don’t want to be just one thing,” he says. “I can’t be. I want to be brave, and I want to be selfless, intelligent, and honest and kind. Well, I’m still working on kind.”
A poignant statement for today’s teens, especially in a society that pushes them away from these ideals.
All Aboard the Hoodlum Express!
Why does Tris leave her faction and join Dauntless? It’s an interesting question to ponder. One could postulate that Tris, recognizing the flaws inherent in her social system, perceives Dauntless as a means of convincing her world to overcome the absolutist philosophies that bind its inhabitants. Or here’s another possibility: Dauntless is cool.
Think about it. Here’s a girl forced to wear bulky gray clothes, a girl taught to shun herself to the point of not even looking in mirrors. Then there’s the Dauntless, whose pierced and tattooed rebels enter the film by jumping off one of the Windy City’s famed elevated trains—Chicagoans call it the “L”—then fist pumping and hollering while they run to their destination. The Billy Badasses who constitute this faction are every parent’s nightmare, and every sixteen-year-old girl’s dream! Tris wants to break free of the faction that has quashed her individuality.
Nevertheless, Tris makes a choice, and she must accept the consequences. That she does, and actress Shailene Woodley offers an admirable performance in which she effectively transfers her emotions to the viewer, especially in the film’s most tragic scene.
“Faction Before Blood”
On its surface, Divergent is about a young woman’s struggles to overcome her fears and defend herself from those who are out to get her because of what a test reveals (or doesn’t reveal). On a deeper level, it’s a cautionary tale about what happens when people lose their ability to think contextually and divide into groups with neatly packaged philosophical systems. We can’t make moral choices with a checklist.
Then there is the inevitable Hunger Games comparison. Yes, Hunger Games offers a more complex lead and makes the viewer feel closer to what’s happening on screen, but which future is more likely: one in which an oppressive leadership sponsors an annual tournament in which kids kill each other, or one in which a city divides into factions?
Today’s children, fussed over by their helicopter parents, aren’t likely to be sent to the killing arena anytime soon. We do, however, have a tendency to identify strongly with the group to which we belong. Divergent has its factions. We have our departments and teams.
The credo that drives Tris’s society is “faction before blood.” Some might believe that a society that goes to such lengths to support a narrow ideology is a thing of the past. However, Chicago Cubs and White Sox fans consistently pummel each other. If people are willing to beat each other to a bloody pulp over baseball, what will they do to support an ideology?
The critics can denounce Divergent as silly, but aren’t we all? - Douglas J. Ogurek