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Friday, 8 August 2014

Divergent (2014)

Divergent (2014).

Are you divergent?

… Eh, yes and no. We'll get to that.

Divergent – the film, I should clarify, not the book – is a 2014 film adapted from Veronica Roth's young adult novel of the same name. It focuses on Beatrice (or Tris) Prior, a girl born into a post-apocalyptic Chicago wherein everyone is divided up into five factions: Abnegation, the selfless; Dauntless, the brave; Amity, the kind; Erudite, the … er … well, the evil, to be honest, but ostensibly the intelligent; and Candor, the honest. Tris, from Abnegation, discovers that she's divergent, able to fit into multiple factions, and chooses to join Dauntless, all while keeping her divergency a secret from, again, the evil Erudites.

I – hm. I'll be honest here, several things about this film made me very uneasy.

Let's talk about the slightly strange marketing angle first, which seems to be almost embedded into the source material, the idea of 'ooh, yes, you could be divergent, you non-conformist audience member, you, you're not like everyone else, comeseeourfilm.' Apart from the fact that I've always been a bit unnerved by an obsession with a rather nebulous concept of nonconformity – because it involves tarring everyone around you with a brush of 'ugh, so conformist' and completely ignoring the fact that these are all people with varied, interesting lives, none of whom are alike – and that that obsession seems to loom large in the minds of both the story's creators and a lot of its fanbase, it also doesn't make a lot of sense.

Have you ever met someone who was selfless but not kind? I'd argue it's essentially impossible. Or someone who's honest but not brave? Also probably impossible. It's also pretty impossible to find someone who isn't most or all of these attributes. Most people aren't really smart, but also cowardly, self-serving, cruel and dishonest; or honest, but also selfish, stupid, cruel cowards; or brave, but stupid, dishonest, cruel and self-serving. I'd argue it's overwhelmingly more common for people to be all five, depending on context.

Here's a glass case slowly filling with water.

So that's my philosophical bugbear with it. There was a good blog post written about a similar philosophical bugbear over at Nine Over Five.

Here's my literary bugbear: 'Erudite are evil' is beaten into the audience's heads in this film, and the only explanation we get is 'well, they're academics. Evil academics.' The closest we get to a good Erudite or former Erudite is Tris' brother Caleb, and even he spends a small chunk of the film twirling his moustache and talking about how Erudite should rule.

I can't tell whether it's because Roth dragged this plot device from the 70s and 80s and failed to see how jarring it'd be nowadays, or because Roth is, as her acknowledgements tell us, a committed Christian – and there is a certain subset of Christianity that views academia as evil, because rational inquiry and knowledge and religious faith mix about as well as oil and water.

It's probably not a coincidence that the 'good' faction is the
one that lives a life full of denial of pleasure, either.

Either way, it's weird and uncomfortable how vilified Erudite, and by extension all academics, seem to be. It reminded me, more than anything, of JK Rowling's cartoonish vilification of Slytherins – but Rowling was aiming her work at a much younger audience, and doing so in a very Dahlian way, and it didn't seem so jarring or odd there. Notably, as she shifted out of that Roald Dahl kind of style and into something that's arguably a lot closer to Veronica Roth's style, she started introducing good Slytherins.

So, there's that. How does the rest of the film hold up, then?

… Eh?


I'll be honest, I watched it a matter of hours ago, and I'm already forgetting things about it. It's not a massively memorable film, and a large part of that might be that it doesn't really have a clear aesthetic for itself: It does, in fact, have The Hunger Game's aesthetic. It borders on absurdity at points just how much this film looks like The Hunger Games. The Abnegation compound is almost a dead ringer for District 13, the Erudite compound only distinguishable from the Capitol by being notably less full of people with weird make-up and hair, the Dauntless compound filled with people wearing outfits that they appear to have stolen straight off Katniss Everdeen's back.

I realise this film was meant to cash in on The Hunger Games' popularity, but did you have to be so obvious about it, producers? While I blame Roth for the weird anti-intellectualism, the blame for this mimicry of another film has to rest with the people adapting the novel, and it is – it is as subtle as a brick, I swear. Even the cinematography is similar to The Hunger Games, making use of a lot of close-up shots, both slow and rapid.

Why are their punching bags shaped like hourglasses?

On the plus side, the two leads are likeable, as are most of the supporting characters. There was nobody I really hated in this film, nobody I was really bored by, and the film actually did a really good job of showing Tris' character development over time. Not as good a job as the book, I gather from fans who have read it and seen this film, but a good job nevertheless. Love interest Four starts off as utterly unlikeable and by the end is – you know, fine. I feel like what Four really needed was characters he was already close to who could serve to humanise him, and he never really got that, so at the start of the film he just comes off as insufferable and kind of ridiculous, starting conversations with people and then getting enraged when they actually reply to him.

Maggie Q puts in a brief but standout performance, and Zoe Kravitz and Kate Winslett steal whatever scenes they happen to be in. Shailene Woodley is also very good, even if she's often playing against a slightly wooden Theo James.

The plot of Erudite attempting to throw Abnegation is set up well at first, but their motivations become increasingly unclear as the film goes on. Some guff is thrown at the audience about how Abnegation endangers the faction system, but we never see any evidence of that, or any evidence of why Erudite would be all for it. The actual mechanics of the plan also start to fall apart towards the end: They have a drug, based on the fear hallucinogen used in Dauntless training, that takes control of people, but it doesn't work on Divergents.

… Why? The fear drug worked on them. The fear drug working on them was kind of an important part of the plot prior to this. Nobody knows, because the film never even tries to explain, or even acknowledge this as something that might need explaining. Just roll with it. Don't question it.

Definitely don't question why this society is so preoccupied
with hallucinogens.

Which really sums up this entire film. Oh, just don't question it. How does the faction system not just fall apart on itself? Don't question it. Why are the faction attributes so arbitrary? Don't question it. What's in the Erudite water supply that makes them so evil? Don't question it. Just don't question anything, ever.

I could forgive that kind of laziness if this was a strikingly made film, or if it had some intriguing and deep plot going for it, or if the acting was uniformly stunning, or, god, even if it had a good soundtrack, but it has none of those things. It's just a very bland, forgettable cash-grab film, and the fact that it's getting not just a sequel, but three sequels when there are only two more books, is absurd.

I'm not sure whether to blame the people who made the Deathly Hallows films or the Mockingjay films for that one.

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