Neil Burger’s career as a director has been awful. He directed The Illusionist (USA/Czech Republic 2006)—an awful, pointless film that seems to have been released at the same time as The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2006) in order to confuse viewers into going to watch the wrong film. Then he made an entire film based on the far-too-common myth that people only use some small percentage of their brain in Limitless (USA 2011), apparently hoping that enough people only used a small enough percentage of their brain to be happy with that dumb action movie with science fiction window dressing. And yet, he not only keeps getting more at-bats, but he’s getting them with increasingly higher stakes, and he keeps getting praised along the way.
So, of course, when he had a new big-budget young-adult film coming out with a plot so outlandish that it was laughable in the logline, I was first in line. If you took that line seriously, adjust your sarcasm meter. (Go ahead. I’ll wait. You’re going to need it.)
I actually decided to watch this film because of the vast wasteland that is spring in movies and because I hate to miss a Kate Winslet* performance.
The basis of the film is pretty simple: in a post-apocalyptic future, only one city remains (as far as we know), and the leaders have organized the city into “factions” that are supposedly based on their personalities in order to keep everyone contented enough that the wars that destroyed the world don’t return. There are the jocks, the nerds, the . . . oh, wait, we’re supposed to be pretending this isn’t really just an adaptation of a middle school lunch room: the Dauntless, the Erudite, the Candor, the Amity, and the Abegnation. At age 16, every child takes a personality test and then chooses a faction, most following the test’s result but with no such requirement. It’s not dissimilar from Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat, though its insistence on claiming that it’s based on “personality” gives everything a veneer of legitimacy.
Beatrice “Tris” Prior, born to the selfless Abnegation faction (Who are amazingly good-looking, clean-skinned people for “rejecting vanity” and have incredible hair and makeup for people who dislike mirrors.), takes the test and is given the extraordinarily rare result that she is “divergent”—she doesn’t fit any one faction. Since it’s a young adult story, we know where this is going: she’s going to go join the most fun faction (Dauntless, the fearless warriors–just imagine how boring a movie of Abegnation or Amity would be!) and fake fitting in, start out having trouble but eventually become a leader, find another divergent to fall in love with, and then lead the revolution against this bizarre totalitarian regime.
And, that’s exactly what happens. Every note of this film is so telegraphed as to be almost a joke. One character ham-handedly asks Tris whether all Abegnation parents beat their children like the leader does before we get the “shocking” revelation that Four—the Divergent she’s fallen for—is the abused son of the Abegnation leader. Tris is confused about her own choice but sure that her brother will join Abegnation so that we are “shocked” when he instead chooses Erudite and places even more pressure on his sister. The tester who gives Tris her results (Who is somehow mysteriously present at all important events even though her day job is apparently working as a tattoo artist . . . okay . . . ) turns out to have had a Divergent brother who also joined Dauntless only to be killed when his Divergent status was discovered. And those are just a few examples of how obvious this film is at every turn.
Well, is that obviousness unforgivable? Certainly not, if the plot is serving, as film plots should, as a vehicle for some deeper and broader point. But, Burger doesn’t have a point. The plot is all he has. And if you’re going to have nothing but a plot, you sure as hell should have a plot less obvious and predictable than this tripe.
Perhaps one could argue that I am unfairly using adult standards to judge a film aimed at teenagers. Here are some of the lessons Burger seems to be teaching, though none of them ties together the entire film:
- The prettiest people are always the best. Tris is super hot and therefore great. Christina is much less hot and therefore only okay. Four is super hunky and therefore awesome. Eric is weird looking and has bizarre piercings so he’s a horrible asshole. Molly is relatively fat (Which says something about the fitness of these people. Amy Newbold is nothing approaching fat.), so she’s a bitch. I think my point is made.
- Most people are defined by one clear trait. I know that most people I know are easily describable in one word. It’s amazing and special to have multiple traits. I don’t have a problem with saying that it’s a good thing to have multiple virtues, but don’t pretend that most people don’t.
- Devotion to intelligence and logic necessarily leads to a high-minded self-superiority and need for control over everything—there is after all no way to logically decide that differences are good things that help to ensure that issues are properly understood. Nope.
- Hippy liberal gardeners and authoritarian conservative military men are real things that encompass many people, not oversimplified stereotypes. The same goes for the straw vulcanism that is the Erudite.
And I feel like this point must be made: there is a certain naiveté to the film’s depiction of Tris’s training. We’re watching a beautiful “teenaged” (I’m 28. Shailene Woodley is closer to my age than she is to the 16 she’s playing in this film.) girl and they even go out of their way to make sure we know that there is no sex separation for sleeping, changing, showering, restrooms, etc., and yet all of the negativity directed at her is based on their training and jealousy. There is no sexual tension, let alone sexual danger (Save in a simulation when it comes from the one person Tris can trust, after he has explicitly refused to attempt any such thing in a perfect opportunity to do so.), and in the dangerous world we are otherwise shown, that is so strange as to be almost disturbing. I think one could even make an argument that Burger’s muting of any possible sexual danger is an anti-feminist point, suggesting that such dangers are not actually a part of humanity and/or would not crop up in this psychopath camp (And that’s what they’re attempting to make: psychopaths.), a point that seems outright bizarre. I would bet that it’s more just that they needed to keep things away from sex to be able to hit their intended audience, but the little hints of sexuality make it stand out just how strange it is that she faces no sexual danger. I’m giving the benefit of the doubt by calling it naiveté, but you are welcome to do otherwise.
Burger and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler have succeeded in making a film that’s almost as much of a cartoon as Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, USA/UK 2013) and yet be so very conventional that they aren’t even using the palette that gives them. If you’re going to fill the movie with so much CGI, give us some shots of the devastated countryside or destroyed night sky. Do something to justify that use—don’t just use it to cut down on how many sets you have to build!
Acting-wise, the film isn’t too bad, though it’s difficult for most of the actors to show much of anything in the two-dimensional roles given. Shailene Woodley has an unbelievable character, but she does everything they ask of her with aplomb, and does as much as she can to carry the film. Much like Asa Butterfield in Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, USA 2013) (with which this story shares more than a passing similarity), she tries her best to carry this carcass on her back, but she can’t get very far. The only other person who really stands out is Mekhi Phifer, and he stands out in a bad way. He comes across as a cartoon villain, which is rather difficult to do in as little screen time as he has, but his bizarre over-enunciation and too-joyous affect makes him almost a joke. That leaves us Kate Winslet. I recall reading once that Bruce Hornsby said that when he became a hot commodity in the late ‘80s people would ask him to come play piano on something and when he would show up, he would play what they asked and then say, “You could have gotten anyone to play that.” That’s what Kate Winslet was—too good for what they gave her to do. She did what they wanted well, but it didn’t take full advantage of her talents, and that’s a shame.
The music deserves a note. Junkie XL’s score is awful, and the actual songs are so annoying that I wanted to leave the theater every time one started playing. It is constantly obtrusive and not fitting the scene at all, which is a major problem for a film score.
Overall, Divergent gives the rest of the year a very strong target to try to hit for worst picture of the year. The acting holds its own, but nothing else in the film is worthwhile, and that’s without even dinging it for any of the problems I have with its seeming vision of neurology or future technology (and those are legion). It’s a terrible film, the type of film that shouldn’t be made.
*Kate Winslet is amazing. Her very first performance in Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/Germany 1994) has rarely been matched, and she gave it at 19. And then, two years later, she became the definitive filmic version of Ophelia in Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, UK/USA 1996). She’s never dropped off since, producing one astounding performance after another. She has been nominated for six Academy Awards and won one, and that’s severely under-rating her. She might well be the best actor alive and is one of the best film actors in history. This part of the review is the one part that contains no snark and no exaggeration—I really do think she is that good.