Starring: Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet, Theo James, Ashley Judd
Running time: 139 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
Bottomline: More condescending twaddle pushed on teens
“Divergent” will inevitably be compared to the Hunger Games franchise, thanks to its totalitarian themes and teenage girl protagonist played by a talented, emerging star (Shailene Woodley).
The more apt comparison, though, is another recent adaptation of a young adult novel, “Ender’s Game.” Because like that movie, “Divergent” isn’t just bad, it’s fraught with an array of ideologically troubling meanings. And both movies construct their fictional worlds in offensively over-simplified terms. Everything is dumbed down to an eye roll-inducing level.
The premise for the series is everyone in a post-apocalyptic world is divided into five factions, which are basically ethnic groups. (I should note that I think, but am not certain, this is a post-apocalyptic world. That was either not explained clearly or it sounded so much like every other science-fiction story I can’t recall it accurately.)
All the people in each group share common behavioral traits. When a character from a certain faction says or does something, everyone explains the behavior by saying, “Oh that’s because you’re a” fill in the blank with one of the factions.
If you think that sounds like “Divergent” stereotyping its own characters, you’re right. But we’ll come back to that.
Each of these groups fills a particular function in society. The Dauntless faction supposedly maintains order, sort of like the police. But not once do we see them doing actual policing.
We’re told the Abnegation faction runs “the government.” What does that mean? Do they run all branches of government?
But we see members of the Erudite faction, particularly Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), carrying out what appear to be judicial tasks.
Rather than fleshing out the story world into a plausible level of complexity, novel author Veronica Roth, who was only a senior in college when she wrote “Divergent,” seems to have built her fictional society around broadly defined high school cliques. Roth is either condescending to her target audience or lacks the understanding of social and political structures to do better. At no point does this seem like a fully formed, believable society.
There is also something very unsettling underlying Roth’s premise. Young adults get to exercise free will by choosing which faction they will belong to. However, being divergent is a biological condition. So does that mean only those who are born divergent are capable of not conforming, of exercising truly free will? Everyone else is, what, biologically limited?
At the very least, the concept expresses a low opinion of humanity. But making one’s social, intellectual and political behavior a product of biology is the same principle on which racism is based. Many have already called out Roth on these issues, and the movie will only add fuel to that fire.
Even if we ignore these problematic elements, very little makes sense.
The Dauntless faction maintains order, yet they are the least orderly faction. And there are apparently no mature people in Dauntless. Everybody is at most in their mid-20s. So is there a “Logan’s Run” rule imposed on only the Dauntless faction? Is this the Lost Boys police force?
I didn’t buy the premise for a moment. I spent most of my time feeling bad for the actors, especially Woodley, who has the enormous misfortune of having to speak what will almost certainly be the worst line of dialogue in a big-budget film all year. Within hours of press screenings for the movie, I saw it used as a joke on Twitter.
For her sake, I hope these movies succeed and catapult Woodley to the next strata of stardom. That’s the least the universe could do to compensate her for performing so well with such a bad script.
This is perhaps the best summation. I’ve wanted to read the books for a while now, but after seeing the movie, I no longer want to.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.