Dauntlessly Dull, by David Bax
Clearly greenlit in an attempt to mimic the surprising success (both artistic and financial) of the Hunger Games franchise, Neil Burger’s Divergent starts by immediately getting wrong one of the main things those films have gotten right. The large-scale restructuring of society in Katniss Everdeen’s world carries with it all the memories and bruises of how it got to be that way and what it was like before. Divergent, though, only makes intentionally vague references to a past war that explains why our characters lived in a mostly abandoned, mostly bombed-out Chicago (the first clue that they’re going for the big bucks here is that they’re even trying to appeal to the booming “urban spelunker” demographic). The same nebulousness applies to the arbitrary and completely implausible categorization of the surviving populace.
Our hero, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), has grown up in one of the city’s five factions. Hers is known as Abnegation (which is probably the stupidest of the five names but not by much) and they are known for selflessness. Each faction has its trait and this one has allowed Abnegation to be in charge of the government, which is obviously pretty important. Beatrice and her brother are about to turn sixteen, which means they will first be tested to learn to which faction they are best suited and then they get to choose, no matter the results, whether to stay where they grew up or switch allegiances, therefore leaving their families behind. “Faction before blood,” people often say here, presumably before clinking Bud Light bottlenecks together and taking a swig.
Like those high school movies where the student body is divided into finite cliques of absolute stereotypes, this whole faction business is hogwash. No recognizable facsimile of a human person behaves in such a way as to be consistently defined by one adjective. The film’s screenwriters, Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, seem to know this and, in order to keep your brain from rejecting the premise, they constantly have people vocally reiterating one another’s characteristics. There are lines that may as well be as straightforward as “You Candors are always speaking your mind” or “You Erudites think you know everything.” I told you the names were stupid.
The most important faction, at least to Beatrice, is Dauntless (they are, you guessed it, brave). Her test has told her that she is fit for more than one faction, making her “divergent.” She has to keep this a secret because she’s in a movie intent on removing, by force if necessary, anyone resembling a relatable character. On the day she is to choose whether to remain in Abnegation or go elsewhere, she decides on Dauntless. The Dauntless crew are the warriors and protectors, charged with policing the city and keeping it safe from outside threats. As far as I can tell, they mostly look after the city by running and jumping around a lot and climbing on things like little kids. In the first act of the film, Dauntless are constantly showing up, doing flips and shouting, “Yeah! Woo!” They’re like an X-Games squad in a juice box commercial. (These scenes and many others are accompanied by invasive pop music proving that at least one person with some sway felt Divergent’s chief purpose was to generate iTunes downloads of songs from the soundtrack album.) During one of these extended running/jumping/climbing sessions, one of Beatrice’s fellow new initiates becomes perplexed. “They want us to jump again?” she asks. Was she not paying attention? Jumping is what Dauntless does best!
Eventually, Dauntless settles down or tires itself out and the new recruits find out things aren’t as fun as they seemed. There is a lot of training to do and failure to keep up could mean banishment. Each of these new members is just a couple of improperly executed backflips away from becoming “factionless.” It would be a scary proposition except that Burger and his screenwriters soft pedal the whole movie. In the lead-up to Beatrice choosing a faction, it was always clear she was fixated on Dauntless. In the long training section, we are never actually shown those who fail to make the cut and have to start over homeless. In both cases, the film is robbed of dramatic stakes. The romance angle isn’t any better, also devoid of tension. At least there’s not a love triangle; still, Beatrice’s flirtations with her slightly older trainer, Four, come across as forced, soapy clichés wedged into the real story. It’s hard to get behind our heroine as a model of independent thought when, every ten minutes, she’s doing things like slipping on a loose ladder rung and being steadied by Four’s firm hand on her hip. There are an awful lot of hand-on-hip shots because that’s about as far as the film is willing to go. For a bunch of coed teenagers who spend their days sweating and tussling together before showering, changing and sleeping in the same room, they are a remarkably chaste, even Victorian, group.
Everything about the society in Divergent is white-washed and tame, which is what makes it so laughable when the theme starts to emerge. How can the film insist that it’s impossible to codify and leash human nature when that’s exactly what it’s done? In real life, multi-faceted people are the norm, not a few headstrong outliers. All the characters here are meant to be human – that precise word is used – but human personalities can’t be predicted and categorized by a simple test. Unless – oh, God – there aren’t midi-chlorians involved, are there?
Even at nearly two and a half hours, Divergent is never able to find its footing. On the contrary, it only devolves further as it goes. Just when it nearly stumbles into a bizarre allegory for the Khmer Rouge, it shifts again into the clumsiest action movie in the world (Ashley Judd was not meant to be an action star). The nadir is reached when Woodley taps into some truly stunning emotion and it only highlights just how far below her weight class she’s been punching. Hopefully, when her time comes around again, she’ll choose a faction worthy of her talents.