March 27, 2014

Divergent: A Dystopia of Dystopian Cliches

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Take a cliché dystopian society, a touch of teenage angst, a female protagonist and a strong-jawed love interest and voilà: instant box-office-topping series. Such is the case, at least, for Divergent, an action movie based on Veronica Roth’s popular book of the same name. Pandering, unoriginal and over-extended, Divergent alienates its viewers while attempting to ride the coattails of recent box office smashes, most obviously The Hunger Games.

Directed by Neil Burger, Divergent is set in a dystopian Chicago after “The War.” To protect themselves and ensure peace, the citizens have essentially walled themselves into the city and split into five groups, each of which has a set job based on personality. 16 year-old Trish, played gamely if plainly by Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), takes the required test, only to find that she is “divergent,” fitting into none of the groups specifically. She proceeds to choose to join “Dauntless,” the soldiers, who seem to spend most of their time outrunning trains and doing parkour. Soon after embarking on her training, Trish begins to find that, what do you know, malignant forces are at work, attempting to kill all the divergents.

Alongside Woodley are a variety of new and old actors. Theo James plays Four, Trish’s instructor-cum-love interest. He does have nice chemistry with Woodley, but his part really does not ask for him to be much more than a handsome young male. Jai Courtney is Eric, a cruel Dauntless trainer with a plethora of piercings, most notable for being an incredibly distracting Macklemore doppelganger. Zoe Kravitz plays Christina, Trish’s closest friend and token minority presence. Again taking a page out of The Hunger Games how-to manual, Divergent recruits some older, more well known actors in the form of Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet. Winslet is especially effective as the brilliant but cold and conniving Jeanine, the leader of the Erudites (scientists). While rationality and science is somewhat unfairly represented in Divergent, Winslet’s portrayal of Jeanine perfectly encapsulates the pathological arrogance of the worst kinds of dictators and politicians.

Divergent has many faults, but none so frustrating as the movie’s commitment to the most standard plot devices, which are so predictable that it approaches farcical. I assume this is also the case with the source material, but regardless, it makes for a boring film, especially at a 140-minute runtime. Even the most basic concept of the movie, a society divided into such rigid, aptitude-based classes, is largely borrowed from Philip K. Dick’s Clans of the Alphane Moon. True originality is extremely rare, especially in copycat-obsessed Hollywood, but the script writers and producers should have at least added in a few more ingredients to prevent viewers from feeling like they were watching Hunger Games leftovers.

While I certainly am pleased to see more women are getting opportunities to lead big budget action movies, I cannot help but wonder if these films are progressive representations of gender. Divergent finds Trish extremely dependent on Four, not only for protection but also for a budding relationship. Especially at the beginning of the film, she is the weak, confused initiate and he is the big, strong man. This is but a modern reiteration of the handsome-knight-saves-trapped-princess motif. Meanwhile, Trish apparently finds time in between training sessions and shootouts to keep her make-up fresh, as almost every single shot of Woodley is a glamor shot. It is both cinematically absurd and condescending to the audience.

This is not to say that Divergent is entirely not entertaining, but it is only entertaining in the least engaging sense. It is the movie you put on while you are multitasking. It simply lacks any hook to grab you — the plot, acting and setting are basic and forgettable. The allegory is neither thought-provoking or novel. Divergent is a movie you have seen before, even when you have not.