Divergent (2014)

Divergent (2014)
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Ansel Elgort, Kate Winslet
Director of Photography: Alwin H. Küchler
Music by Junkie XL
Edited by Richard Francis-Bruce, Nancy Richardson
Written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Neil Burger
Rating: 5 out of 10

(spoilers!)

Divergent is exactly what you think it is: a second-rate Hunger Games with a similar story that’s less appealing and actors that are less interesting. It’s an incredibly silly movie that is still somewhat entertaining but filmed with a great lack of skill (other than its sequel Insurgent which is still silly, less entertaining but better filmed), especially in the last third where action sequences almost seem amateurish as the editing mostly renders them incoherent (can this movie really be edited by Se7en's Richard Francis-Bruce?). Only Kate Winslet somewhat elevates the material, if maybe only because it is refreshing to see her as a (spoiler!) villain. Still, it’s mostly a forgettable film where it is hard to believe that is stretched to another four movie series.

The basic concept of the movie is that the world has been divided into five factions which adhere to a certain personality type basically. Or more precisely, personality stereotypes: the scientists, the farmers, the law people, the soldiers and the… charitable ones? Even describing those factions is hard because it is so absurd to divide them this way. Ultimately of course the movie wants to tell us that we cannot be divided this way, that individuality rules etc. but as it often is, especially with teenage sci-fi movies, the movie conveys its message by selling the complete opposite to us. Yes, eventually Tris (Shailene Woodley, doing an okay job) starts a revolution to fight for the “divergent” ones who cannot be categorized so easily. On the surface, that’s what the movie is about. But the way it presents those factions is more convincing because as we see them, they’re not forced to live in those factions, they are this way. The scientists and the lawmakers are cold and detached, the farmers are helpful and friendly (and, as Tris really says: “Always happy”!), the soldiers are cool and reckless (whenever they appeared in the beginning, running, laughing, climbing buildings for no reason, I couldn’t stop giggling). No one doubts their destiny in a faction, no one doubts that they might not belong somewhere so specifically. It can only have come so far because people can actually be divided so easily, if you follow the movie’s presentation. If there were no corrupt forces who wanted to have more power, the system is presented as the perfect utopia. According to the movie, the flaws are not within the system, only within people.

The movie also proves my thesis for science-fiction movies in general. They often start as utopias which then turn out to be dystopias not because of an ecological disaster or alien attack but because of someone’s lust for power or greed (personified by Kate Winslet’s Jeanine). The villain often explains that the problem is human nature itself (here Jeanine explicitly says she wants to erase human nature itself through categorization because it is a “weakness”), which we are supposed to deny (that’s why the villain says it) but actually believe through our cultural upbringing. Of course humans are the problem! But of course there is a hero (Tris) who defies everything and brings down the oppressive system, leaving the audience with a sense of hope. But (here comes my thesis) it is actually a false sense of hope because a) there is no distinctive feature that justifies why Tris is the one who can save the day and b) she is also human like everyone else, making her even less distinctive. Many sci-fi movies present us a dystopian future where the root of the problem is our humanity and then gives a hopeful ending achieved by just another one of these flawed humans. Divergent is a prime example for that.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Tris is also presented as a supposedly “strong female character” but the movie repeatedly undermines this idea by having her do everything for Four (Theo James, incredibly bland) and being rescued by him (and others) again and again. She is attacked by some teammates and Four helps her out (instead of showing her that she actually is the best of her class). He helps her get through the special tests and she can only beat the bad guys in the end after she frees him first, so he can assist her. In the last scene she says to him “I don’t even know who I am anymore” potentially allowing for a philosophical excursion on identity but then he says “I know exactly who you are,” which is all she needs to hear. She only needs his evaluation of her identity, so she doesn’t have to be independent and rely on his strong, manly shoulders. What a revealing, hypocritical ending that proves how fake this whole enterprise really is.