Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Cinema File #329: "Divergent" Review

It would be easy to dismiss the new film Divegent, as well as the young adult novel series of the same name, as a cheap attempt to cash in on the popularity of the wildly successful Hunger Games franchise. Both stories take place in post apocalyptic dystopian futures ruled by oppressive Orwellian governments in which teenage girls are thrust into high adventure as they struggle to find themselves, free their downtrodden people, and snag the dreamiest boy they can find. Its a bit of an odd subset of the supernatural teen girl wish fulfillment genre brought into the mainstream by Twilight, and seemingly designed to attract a much wider audience with its promise of violence and sci-fi scope, even as it displays the same thinly veiled thematic deconstruction of high school or puberty or what have you. On paper, The Hunger Games would seem to have the leg up considering it has televised murder as its main conceit rather than codified cliques, but in practice, this new "rip off" might just surpass its inspiration.

Divergent opens on a futuristic Chicago walled off from the rest of the world after some vaguely understood world war has supposedly destroyed much of the planet. In order to keep the peace, the citizens have been compelled to acquiesce to a new social order in which everyone is expected to conform to one of five factions representing five positive personality types, each with its own cultural biases and occupations associated with them. When a person comes of age, they are free to choose any faction, but once they choose, they can't change their minds, and before they do, they're put through an aptitude test to give them a better idea of where they might belong. This seems to work just fine for most people, unless you're like our heroine Beatrice, who finds herself with a varied enough skill set that the test labels her divergent, unlikely to accept conformity, and thus a danger to the social order.

Already the high school parallels are obvious, even one might say laid on a bit thick, though no more obtuse than a dark and brooding vampire boyfriend or a contest of literal slings and arrows of teenage misfortune. Then again, science fiction doesn't necessarily have to be subtle to be effective, and sometimes its even a hindrance. Did the obviousness of the racial allegory make the Star Trek episode with the half-white, half-black faced Frank Gorshin any less enjoyable? In fact, this is the one genre that's supposed to wear its message on its sleeve at least a little bit, and for my money, any movie teaching kids that conformity is a bad thing in a culture raised on post-911 "freedom has conditions" jingoism is alright by me, even if that message is a bit muddled by the meta expectation to join all your friends in the nerdy fandom of the franchise.

More importantly, Divergent expands outward from its simple premise and even simpler themes to create a world that is much more interesting than one might think from a basic reading of its synopsis. The Hunger Games films, while certainly well made and entertaining, are somewhat limited in their scope, with the first installment being so self contained that I couldn't help but question how it could even continue, and the second repeating much of the first film's ideas in slightly different variations suggesting that the idea of a trilogy (or a cinematic quadrilogy) might have been overreaching. This film by contrast lacks the punch of killer competitions, but lays the groundwork for its larger story so much better, giving me just enough to entertain me with its introduction of the basic concepts while still leaving me wanting more and leaving room to ask questions and expect answers in further sequels. I want to know what's beyond the wall. I want to know how the equilibrium of this society will change after the climax of the film. I don't care how many more people Katness is going to shoot, or whether a third game is in the offing, or frankly anything else Mockingjay has to offer.

The characters are also a lot stronger and more interesting than the world of Panem, which despite having seen both movies I still had to look up to even remember. Beatrice, who changes her name to simply Tris upon joining up with the militant Dauntless faction, has a more complex and conflicted series of choices to make that prove to be much more personal to her beyond basic survival, contrasted with Katness who is mostly forced into her circumstances and is never expected to make any hard choices that aren't in self-defense. Also, Tris' actress is capable of more than one blank wooden expression, which really makes empathizing with her character a lot easier. Her teacher/obvious love interest is also just a shade more complicated than most guys in movies like this, enough that he comes across as more than just Teen Beat fantasy fodder at least. Special mention should also go to the villains, in particular Kate Winslet's Erudite leader, a woman who genuinely believe in the rightness of her position even as it means exploiting people against their will, infinitely more nuanced than Donald Sutherland's cliche stereotype dictator.

Yes, it is still a young adult sci-fi story intended for teenage girls, and thus is bound by its obligation to throw in steamy post-pubescent romance and sexual tension, which is as always with this kind of movie, the part where I check out. This is arguably the one area where The Hunger Games is superior, in that it downplays this element to the point of irrelevance, but even then, the relationship between "Tris" and the equally annoyingly named Four is not nearly as distracting as even the few fleeting glimpses of young love between Katness and Not Thor (or the other guy who paints himself like a tree). Our two clearly much older than teenage leads help a lot, both of whom seem to prefer the interesting action beats to slower mushy stuff, coming to life in battle and shrugging off the moon eyes as quickly as possible. In the end, this is just something you have to accept if you're going to even try to get something out of these kinds of movie, which you should really try to do in this case, because it never overpowers everything there is to like about it.

And there is a lot to like, or at least more than not, and more than you might expect if, like me, you generally start from a position of fearing the worst from a YA inspired film. This isn't The Host or The Mortal Instruments, or even Beautiful Creatures, which was almost decent but only in comparison to so much similar garbage. I can't speak for the book having not read it, though from what I've heard from friends who have, its a fairly faithful adaptation of its source material. The best compliment I can give to the film is that its good enough to actually make me just a teensy bit curious about checking out the novel, despite the section of my bookstore I'd have to brave to find it, which is more than I can say for any of the others I've already mentioned too many times. Divergent is not likely to surpass That Other Movie Series in terms of box office, but already as of this writing its made enough to ensure at least one other sequel, and for once, its actually something I'm looking forward to. Go figure.

And for the record, if I had to choose a faction, it would be Candor. I don't want to farm, fight, learn things, or help people, but all the Candors have to do apparently is be dicks all the time. This I can do.
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