One of the things I frequently point to when talking about movies and books is Joseph Campbell’s book Hero of a Thousand Faces. In it he makes a compelling case for what he labeled as the monomyth, a system of storytelling that is a part of narratives told all over the world. He has a lot of theories behind this system, but the general gist is that human beings just like stories told a certain way subconsciously, so that’s the way we tell stories. He argues that the monomyth has a specific pattern that’s easily interpretable, one that connects Jesus to Hercules and Bilbo Baggins to Luke Skywalker. It starts with “The Call to Adventure,” then transitions to a “Refusal of the Call,” and next is ‘Supernatural Aid.” Well, Bilbo has Gandalf and Luke has Obi-Wan. Both initially refuse until an external force intervenes and compels them to “Cross the First Threshold.” George Lucas used the monomyth to invigorate his adventure into a narrative of epic, mythic proportions, but writers today use it as a lazy tool to ensnare readers. Namely, young readers.
Harry Potter was guilty of this crime (although Rowling was a good enough writer that it didn’t much matter), so was Twilight, and now, in what might be one of the worst offenders, enter Divergent. I haven’t read the books, so I can’t comment on them, but the film gives the impression of plugging into every possible thing a young teenage girl might relate to. “Oh, the main character doesn’t fit into any of the different groups (high school cliques)!? That’s just like me!” Everyone sympathizes with an outsider. It’s the same trick as the Harry Potter sorting hat, where the fear of not belonging is exploited. This example is indicative of the whole movie: Divergent is a hodgepodge of teen exploitation. But, hey, if that’s your thing, passable moviemaking and great performances make it worthwhile.
The plot is two parts The Hunger Games and one part Ender’s Game. In a dystopian future where the world has been ravaged by war and the world’s wellbeing is enshrouded in mystery, we meet our hero to be in a rebuilding Chicago. I wonder what it is about Chicago that makes it a popular candidate as a sci-fi future, since it’s interesting that both this and I, Robot celebrated the city’s diverse architecture along with CGI additions of glass skyscrapers. The Chicago of Divergent is much bleaker than in I, Robot, however, and the city is in ruins. Wires and crude tech connect towering buildings together, probably for power. The production design is one of the film’s best features, and it was admittedly really cool to see the movie inside one of the film’s main set pieces: Navy Pier’s IMAX Theater. Only, instead of being surrounded by the shimmering (and currently very cold) Lake Michigan, the water’s been replaced by what looks like an African savanna. The setting works and helps make the movie work. The voiceover that kicks off the movie tells us Chicago’s leadership developed a system to stave off another war: they created five distinct factions that run the city. Each citizen is given a test that tells them where they should go, but they can choose whichever they like. Sort of like if you’re a nerdy kid (the faction’s equivalent is called Erudite, who have a Mark Zuckerbergian sense of superiority) you can become a jock (Dauntless). For some reason, the jocks serve as the parkour police — they climb and jump in and around countless massive objects, although this is seemingly forgotten in the film’s action scenes. To isolate and protect itself from outside threats, Chicago has a massive wall around the city. Dauntless protect that too.
We’re told this is a form of controlling the people, and by forcing everyone to conform to a specific archetype (hello Joseph Campbell!), they’ll lose the ability to be creative and diverge from everyone else. Get it? It’s the title of the movie. A divergent is someone who isn’t fit for any of the five factions. This is where we meet the main character, Tris, who is frantically told she’s a divergent as has to fit in. According to the leaders of Chicago, individuality is a recipe for disaster and it must be killed. She chooses dauntless, and as tensions between the five factions grow, it becomes her job to dissolve the situation. It’s another boring song about how being different is the path to salvation when everybody else is a mindless drone. Oh, and adults are almost always bad. We’ve seen this endless times. Hell, it’s such an overused trope that David Fincher’s seminal film Fight Club makes fun of it throughout its entire first reel. It’s for this reason The Hunger Games stands out as the Ulysses of young adult fiction. The characters are complex, defy easy explanation, and don’t submit to tropes we’ve seen a million times. In fact, The Hunger Games works as meta-fiction in how self-aware it is in avoiding the old pitfalls (at least, in the movies) of the young adult genre. That’s the irony: for all the time Divergent takes to praise independent thinking, it doesn’t have an original thought in it.
It doesn’t help that the basic premise works to only serve the young adult audience. That is to say, its internal logic is a problem. Spoiler: there isn’t any. Why are a bunch of teenagers running around as police for the city? There’s only a handful of adult cast members, and each of them have truncated screen time. Why are there barely any adults? There are five factions each with a set purpose. Certainly, a sprawling city like Chicago demands upkeep well beyond the prescribed positions by its five factions. But the film doesn’t deal with these questions, and I hope the book does. Obviously, Divergent is meant to be a metaphorical parable for the shifting uncertainties of youth, but the premise is so poorly thought out that it’s a constant distraction.
Luckily, the performances go some ways to sell the innate absurdity of the whole piece. Shailene Woodley made waves following her breakout role in The Descendants that gave her instant art house credibility that gained the attention of hungry filmmakers looking for young talent. This led to her acclaimed role in the coming-of-age story The Spectacular Now, where she convincingly plays an idiosyncratic girl. It’s easy to see why the producers of Divergent thought she’d be perfect for the role, and she nails it. Not only does she bring the same charisma and complexity to Tris that she brought to The Spectacular Now, but she’s shown herself to be a powerful action heroine. Woodley’s not going to be the next Jennifer Lawrence no matter how many headlines The Hollywood Reporter makes to that effect, but she’s a potent performer with a bright future ahead. It takes real star power to carry a big budget feature, and just like Tris in the film, Woodley pulls it off seemingly without remembering to be afraid. The supporting cast is serviceable, but co-star Theo James, whose character named Four helps run Dauntless, shares real chemistry with Woodley. Had any other actors been cast in the lead roles, the inevitable love story wouldn’t have worked. Here, the star power makes it happen, if only barely.
The Ender’s Game portion of Divergent, the first hour and forty minutes or so, are what works best. Her training scenes are well staged and acted, and there’s a passive enjoyment to them. Tris’ transition into Dauntless allows for the film’s decent world building to carry interest until her training begins, which is when Woodley’s skills as an actress are best shown. The recent adaptation of Ender’s Game may not have been a resounding success, but it didn’t artificially create preposterous stakes as a carrot on a stick for the audience to follow. In Divergent, characters are constantly threatened with murder, maiming, or being completely kicked out. Once someone is kicked out of a faction, they become factionless, which is Divergent’s version of being homeless. To put it simply, less is more, but in a film where narrative logic is tossed aside for ham-fisted metaphor, why expect subtlety elsewhere? Once the shit hits the fan and the real actions starts (yes, I’m being deliberately ambiguous about what the shit is), Divergent becomes a mess. The action-based finale is staged with the dexterity of a monkey wielding a hand-held camera, one who was told to follow around the actors who looked important, and in exchange the monkey would get a dozen bananas. If you’re given a similar offer: see Divergent, or have some bananas, take the bananas.