Monday, April 7, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: Divergent

Divergent was directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist) and written by Evan Daughtery and Vanessa Taylor. It's based on the young adult novel by Veronica Roth.

Another week, another teen romance set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world. Try as I might, it's impossible to judge this film without comparing it to others in the genre such as The Host, The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games. In follows the established Hunger Games template in particular almost to the letter. You've the same star-crossed young lovers, you've got the Reaping, er, I mean the Choosing Ceremony, you've got the same intense training pitting teen against teen, you've got a small group of rebels trying to overthrow the oppressive government...  

Heck, both films were even released by the same studio, Lionsgate.

Perhaps a better name for the film would have been Derivative.

CLASS DIVIDED SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
In a futuristic post-war Chicago, the population is divided into five Factions: Abnegation (selfless public servants), Amity (peaceful farmers), Candor (truthful public defenders), Erudite (intelligent and educated researchers) and Dauntless (law enforcers). Whoever named these factions obviously owns a thesaurus.

When a citizen turns sixteen, they're given a test and sorted into a particular Faction. Beatrice Prior was born into the Abnegation Faction. Since she's the hero of the story, naturally when she takes the test she finds she's a Divergent— an anomaly who has traits of ALL the Factions.

The government shuns and exiles Divergents, fearing they'll upset the delicate balance of Society. Beatrice hides her test results and chooses the Dauntless faction, because they're kewl. She renames herself Tris and trains with them for several months, slowly becoming one of them.

Eventually the Erudite Faction use mind control devices on the Dauntless army and uses them to stage a coup against Abnegation for control of the government. The mind control device doesn't work on Divergents, so it's up to Tris to save the City.

Thoughts:
• Oy, another young adult love story that takes place in a futuristic dystopia. And an incredibly specific one at that.

One thing they never bother to explain in these types of stories: How the hell do these worlds come to be? Why would anyone ever agree to live in such cockamamie societies?

Why would the population go along with splitting into five highly specialized factions? Why would a citizenry that outnumbers their enforcers willingly sacrifice two of their children every year? Why would anyone agree to have a death clock implanted in their forearm?

I get that the authors use these societies to examine facets of our own, but they never tell us how these far-fetched systems started up in the first place. That's the story I want to see.

I can see why the Divergent series is so popular, as it ties in perfectly with the typical teen's feelings of non-conformity, isolation and rebellion.

The hero exists in a world where everyone is forced to conform to society's rigid rules. But she's special and doesn't fit in anywhere. Why, she's just like every teen in the audience! They don't fit in either!

• During Tris' opening expository info dump, she says that the Five Faction System has preserved the peace for decades. Not ten minutes later we see that there's friction between at least two of the factions, one of which (Erudite) wants to overthrow the other (Abnegation) and run the government. So much for the peaceful Faction System!

• Along these same lines, some people don't conform to any of the of the five groups and are known as the Factionless (wouldn't that technically make them yet another Faction?). They're shunned by society and have to eke out a living digging through garbage, living in alleys and relying on handouts-- within the walls of the city.

Why the hell would such a rigidly hierarchal society allow the Factionless to live inside the city walls? Why wouldn't they kick them out and let them fend for themselves in the wilderness?


• Speaking of the Factions, it seems like they left out a few. Wouldn't you need a Manufacturing Faction to produce tangible goods? Somebody's gotta make the clothing, furniture and vehicles the people need, but we never see any factories. How about a Merchant Faction to sell the various goods? I'd think they'd need a Medical Faction as well, to treat people when they're sick. What about a Janitorial/Maintenance Faction? Someone has to haul away the trash and fix things when they break down. You'd need an Entertainment Faction as well, to keep the population distracted so they don't think about rebelling.

I suppose you could argue that some of these might be covered by the existing Factions, but I'm skeptical. Erudite would have the smarts to be doctors, but probably wouldn't have much of a bedside manner. Abnegation have the right attitude to be healers, but they live and dress like the Amish and probably don't know much about CAT scans. And so on.

• Just to make sure everyone knows their place in this society, all members of each Faction are forced to wear color-coded clothing. Just like the Power Rangers, or the audience on Tattletales. In fact, during the Reaping, er, Choosing Ceremony, the wide shots of the audience, segregated by Faction and color, looked very much like that relic of the 1970s.

For the record Abnegation always wears grey, Amity wears red and orange clothing, Candor wears white, Erudite wears blue and Dauntless wears black.
 
• One thing the filmmakers did right-- the film takes place in the indeterminate future. No exact date is ever given. Good. 

As regular readers of my blog know by now, one of my pet peeves is when a sci-fi movie presents us with a radically altered society full of highly advanced technology, then places it in the unimaginably far off year of 2021.

When dealing with futuristic dates, vague is the way to go.


• During the daytime, post-war Chicago appears to be a modern city with technology ahead of our own. At night though the city seems to be completely dark. So they have stun guns, mind control and machines that can read and display your thoughts on a screen, but apparently no light bulbs. Got it.

Is there a reason why all the lights are shut off at night? Some kind of curfew? Is there not enough juice to power the lights as well as the gigantic electrified fence that surrounds the city?

• One of the characteristics of the Abnegation Faction is that they have no vanity. To ensure they abide by this trait, the use of mirrors is heavily restricted. When Tris is getting ready for the Reaping, er, Choosing Ceremony, her mother only allows her a brief glance into the family's sole mirror. It's even hidden behind a special sliding panel!

If mirrors are so verboten to this Faction, why do they have one in their house in the first place? Yeah, it's normally hidden, but if they're so unconcerned about how they look to the world, why have one at all?  

• In this society, when a child reaches the age of sixteen they're required to take an aptitude test to decide which Faction is best for them. But they don't have to adhere to the test results. During the Reaping, er, Sorting Hat, er, I mean Choosing Ceremony they're allowed to pick whatever Faction they want.

If you can choose any Faction, then what the hell's the point of the test? It seems like a big waste of time if you can willingly override it. Is the test meant to identify and weed out Divergents? Apparently it's none of our concern, as this is never addressed.


• One last thing about the Reaping, er, Choosing Ceremony. The initiates are told that they can choose to join any of the five Factions, but once they choose, that's it-- they're in for life. No backsies or do-overs. 

Would you want to have to live with such a permanent decision your dumb sixteen year old self made? That's even worse than our system, in which we have to live with the career choices we made at age eighteen.

• By the way, some or all of these nitpicky questions I have may have been answered in the novel, which I haven't read. Too bad! This is the movie! If I have to read the book to understand what's happening in the film, then the screenwriters failed badly.

• No one ever says for sure, but I'm guessing Tris and her brother Caleb are twins, since they both choose their Factions on the same day.

• Tris was born into the Abnegation Faction, and her parents of course hope she'll choose to stay there. She ends up choosing Dauntless, which acts as the city's police force and army.

At first I wondered why someone from such a peaceful and benevolent Faction would choose one so violent and warlike. It seems like Dauntless would be a completely alien way of life to her. Then I figured it out--  it's so they could fill the run time with some of that Hunger Games kid vs. kid battle action! All the other Factions are filled with people who sit around and talk or farm all day. Dauntless was the only one that would feature anything even remotely exciting.


• Tris' love interest in the film is the leader of Dauntless, whose name is Four. Yep, I said Four. His real name is Tobias Eaton, but he's known as Four because of his four fears. Cause you know, everyone has just four specific fears, right? Right?

• During the Dauntless War Games, they use guns with live ammo. Tris is initially apprehensive about using such weapons on her fellow Factioners, until her sadistic instructor Eric demonstrates that the guns are perfectly safe and fire cartridges that simulates the pain of a bullet hit, but not the damage.

Maybe so, but I'd hardly call them harmless. These cartridges appears to be at least three to four inches long. If you caught one in the eye you might as well toss your Viewmaster in the trash.

• Near the end of the film Tris and Four rebel against their mind controlled brethren. There's a big shootout between Four and Eric, his former friend. We see several closeups of Four and Eric shooting at one another. However when they cut to a wide shot, hilariously we see they're crouched ten feet apart at the most.

It looks exactly like a scene from one of the Naked Gun movies.

• In the third act we find out that Erudite is plotting to overthrow the Agnegation Faction for control of the government. They inject everyone in the Dauntless Faction with a thought control device that turns them all into mindless drones that follow orders without question.

This whole mind control plot point is pulled right out of the author's ass. It literally comes out of nowhere, as the audience had no idea such a thing was even a possibility in this world. Bad form, movie!

Additionally, the mind control widget doesn't work on Tris or Four because they're Divergents. Well that was certainly convenient! If that hadn't happened Erudite's coup would have gone off without a hitch!

• Since everyone and their dog writes nothing but trilogies these days, and studios are desperate for successful film franchises, this is of course the first of three planned films. So you know what that means-- it doesn't have a proper ending! They might as well have thrown up a title card that said, "Continued Next Year!"

• At the very end of the film, the rebels hop onboard an L train and ride it through the Wall and outside the city with no trouble. 

First of all, where's the security on the Wall? Why is it possible to ride right through it? Does the Wall only work one way? It keeps people from getting in, but you can freely walk out any old time you feel like it? 

Second, as my pal KW Monster pointed out, what's the deal with these trains? All through the film the Dauntless gang jumps on and off them while they're moving. In fact I don't think we ever see them stop. Is anyone driving them, or are they automated? And if you want to ride one, do you have to risk your life by leaping on as it speeds by?

Divergent is yet another young adult love story set in a dystopian society, that's just too derivative for its own good. I give it a B-.

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