Sunday, March 23, 2014

Generic Dystopia Blahs: DIVERGENT

So many young adult novels have gotten so lugubrious and solemn about subject matter that’s inherently exciting pulp. They’ve forgotten that fast and fun are not adjectives that preclude serious themes. Stories of teenage vampires and teenage gladiatorial combat and teenage dystopias have become these long, slow, formless blobs of deadening trembling import, eliding any B-movie energy they could potentially kick up. It’s like they feel the need to reassure their teen readership that they’re important by placing protagonists their age in the center of every single thing of importance in any given YA world. The weight of these decisions crushes the fun. The Hunger Games adaptations have just barely managed to escape this fate by working an interesting and enjoyable vein of satire and having actual characters for adults to play. You get why moments matter in those movies.

But Divergent has no such luck. It’s empty and bland, a movie built from the ground up to flatter its protagonist. You see, the world it imagines, a post-apocalyptic Chicago that’s been dried up and cordoned off, is split into five discreet career-based factions: scientists called Erudite, lawyers called Candor, farmers called Amity, soldiers called Dauntless, and philanthropists called Abnegation. The divisions between the groups are intensely policed. Once a teen picks their faction in a choosing ceremony, there’s no going back. Flunking out of the track chosen means a faction-less life of abject poverty and homelessness. Our protagonist’s only problem is that she’s too smart, too talented, and too all-around great to fit in only one faction. She’d be perfect in any and all of the factions. She can do everything. And that’s why she’s a threat. She’s just too good for this world.

She’s Tris, played by Shailene Woodley, who is good enough at suggesting interiority to make something of a character out of nothing at all. Her primary attribute is her boldness, which leads her to drift away from her parents’ selfless charity-based Abnegation towards the law enforcement Dauntless. It’s there that she realizes the problems of being labeled Divergent, what the world of this story calls those who fit more than one category. I guess if they have a name for it, then Tris isn’t the first. How this society operates, I’m not quite sure. They claim to have existed in these five separate but equal factions for 100 years. Yet the overarching plot is about the villainous head of Erudite (Kate Winslet) deciding to overthrow and wipe out one of the other factions. Why hasn’t this happened sooner? The whole system seems unstable to me, partially because it seems calculated to avoid any explicit political messaging while providing a scenario in which the protagonist is the most special of all special people and can see their world’s grand design. Good for her, I guess.

The story follows Tris as she slowly becomes a great Dauntless and ends up involved with every major machination of the plot. The fate of future Chicago is in her hands. She meets a handsome Dauntless guy (Theo James) and has a crush on him. The architecture of his face probably has something to do with that, especially the way the camera lingers on his intense stares. Lucky for her, he eventually reciprocates those feelings. Along the way we get endless training montages and some uncomfortable militaristic hazing between barking about showing no fear from an ensemble of young heroes (Zoe Kravitz, Ansel Elgort), villains (Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer), and at least one wisenheimer who is not quite either (Miles Teller). Joining Winslet as the token adults in the cast are Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q, and Ray Stevenson in a collection of helpful or harmful influences on Tris and her friends. They stand around in their awkward costumes and pretend this all makes sense, lending it a modicum of weight by reminding us of the better roles they’ve had.

Director Neil Burger’s approach is generic, impersonal, but sometimes serviceable. One nice scene involves a zip line off the top of a skyscraper and through the abandoned skyline of the city. I liked that. But most of the movie, adapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor from the book by Veronica Roth, involves pretty faces held in close-up. For over two hours they murmur towards each other, worried about who is going to be Dauntless, what the Erudites are up to and who is spreading rumors about Abnegation. They find it far more important than I did. All the intent declarations involving their faction titles only had me wondering why this society would choose such unwieldy adjectives for their groups’ names.

The film feels so claustrophobic and small, spending most of its time in rooms and caves and warehouses. When we finally pull back for wide shots, the sense of CGI space it tries to create feels fake and tiny, utterly inconsequential and entirely arbitrary. Chicago is a husk of its former self, but the “L” is still running and apparently automated? Okay. Maybe it works on the page (somehow I doubt it). But on screen, the whole thing just looks dumb.

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