Dystopian movies don’t have to make sense. As the audience, we’re obligated to sit down with our popcorn and soda and pretend that yes, of course, in the future monkeys rule the earth, women can’t bear children, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is an everyday construction worker. It’s a mutual contract of creative freedom, and if you can’t play along, you’re a spoilsport.
Fine, I’m a spoilsport. Neil Burger’s Divergent is constructed around a narrative premise so illogical it makes Keanu Reeves being the Chosen One feel as earthbound a notion as saying water is wet.
In this future Chicago, a decimated city that’s supposedly the last civilization standing, the citizenry is so organized that they’ve divided themselves into five factions and built an electrified Great Wall to protect themselves from outsiders, yet no one can be bothered to fix the broken windows. Guess Rudy Giuliani didn’t survive the genericpocalypse.
But back to those five groups, for they are the pillars of salt upon which our plot rests, or really, flails. You have the Erudite, who are smart and wear blue, the Amity, happy hippies in orange, the honest Candor, who favor white, the Dauntless, brave fighters in black, and the Abnegation, selfless, gray-clad civil servants. (At least Veronica Roth, author of the novel this is based on, keeps up the teen lit tradition of sneaking in SAT words.) Teenagers test their aptitudes for each clan, but get the final say in a public ceremony with no takebacks besides social expulsion. Ninety-five percent test into the factions where they were raised, as though the future has resolved the debate of nature versus nurture.
I’m no social scientist, but declaring that all of mankind falls neatly into one, and only one, of these broad traits with nary an argumentative drama queen, craven fool, or anyone who would appear on The Real World is like sorting a bag of marshmallows based on squeezability and then declaring them biologically distinct. Sorry, Paula Abdul, these opposites can’t attract — they’re not even allowed to talk. So the smart marry the smart and the brave marry the brave, and I reckon cartoon cats are executed on sight.
It’d be easier to root for lead Tris’s (Shailene Woodley, the go-to girl for drab roles with grit) quest to escape her Abnegation roots and those ghastly gray skirts to prove herself a worthy Dauntless if director Burger felt committed to the concept. But under his guidance, the five clans act near-indistinguishably from each other except for their grooming, and when Tris stumbles in the hour-plus training sequence that makes up the bulk of the film, her instructor yells, “I thought you were smart!” Smart? But how?
Actually, Tris can be smart and brave — she’s secretly tested as Divergent, the rare person who can be smart, brave, giving, happy, and honest. Which, in this world, means she must be killed. Explains evil Erudite Jeanine (Kate Winslet), people who break the rules by being smart, brave, giving, happy, and honest start wars. You might as well blame violence on kitten calendars. But this is just another lapse in logic from a film where a fellow undercover Divergent who lives in dorms so public that the toilets don’t have stalls reveals that he’s tattooed his divergency on his spine. Can we at least disqualify him from being one of the smarties?
We have a lot of time to ponder these mysteries as there’s almost no story. Watching Tris’s efforts to pass Dauntless induction is like watching a race without a goal — there’s forward momentum, but no meaning. She’s the ultimate adrift teenager, malleable and prone to random acts of self-martyrdom, with that movie-hero quality of being so good she’s boring. At least Woodley has the gift of being fresh and believable. It’s not a movie star quality. Watching her feels like watching a home video of your best friend on the toughest day of her life. When she’s 35, Woodley could become the greatest actress of her generation, as long as she survives the next decade of being shoehorned into superhero roles and cash-in franchises.
Fighting alongside her both in Divergent and in the Hollywood factory are co-stars Miles Teller (soon to be of Fantastic Four) and Zoë Kravitz (formerly of X-Men: First Class). As her bratty sparring partner, Peter, Teller (who also acted against Woodley in the better teen-boundary-breaking drama The Spectacular Now) gets to stomp on her head. But it’s Kravitz as her best friend, Christina, who does the most damage. During a lull in Dauntless training, she chirps, “You know what we should do? Get tattoos!” leading to Tris getting a permanent stamp of three birds across her collarbone like a plate for sale on Etsy.
I beg of you, teenage girls who may yet make Divergent a box office hit: Please don’t do the same. We can’t avoid the future — dystopian or not — but we can at least prevent regrettable fad tattoos.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 19, 2014