Dissecting Divergent

 

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Entertaining yet not quite fulfilling, intelligent but underdeveloped, and having provoked an extremely broad range of critical reaction without any clear consensus, Divergent certainly lives up to its title in terms of both its internal contradictions and audience reception. It’s enjoyable enough to merit a viewing and it provides an intriguing fictional society and setting that feels genuinely lived-in. Additionally, the social factions that form the crux of the story’s plot and themes are quite interesting in the way they represent contemporary social and ideological divisions as well as moral virtues. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the individual characters in the film, however likeable some of the actors playing them are, and the movie leaves too many questions about its themes and setting frustratingly unanswered. Hopefully, these will be addressed in the inevitable sequels; as it is, many of the repetitive action scenes and fight sequences could have been pared down to provide some much-needed exposition and to explore the underdeveloped but promising themes.

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Although Divergent‘s core premise of contemporary ideologies and occupational groups having become biologically distinct in the future may seem novel to viewers and readers unfamiliar with the history of science fiction, the film, like last year’s Elysium, is just playing with themes first introduced by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine. Unfortunately, like too many other fictional dystopias that also bear massive debts to that particular novel, including such films as Logan’s Run and Zardoz, it seemingly has not learned one of the most important lessons taught by Wells: explaining how a fictional future world came to be, and how the social and biological distinctions between its groups emerged. At least in George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the hows and whys of a society’s emergence as well as its contradictions and implausibilities were easily hand-waved away because what was important was the author’s allegorical concerns and their intent of projecting and amplifying modern-day socio-political trends. The makers of Divergent don’t seem concerned with such questions, and we go hungry trying to figure them out. We never learn what exactly was the disaster that isolated Chicago from the rest of the world, or how this particular caste system arose. Clearly it has not been in genetic isolation long enough to have evolved naturally, but if the society was genetically engineered, who did it and why? Presumably, the Erudites or their ancestors had a hand in it, but then why didn’t they put themselves in a leadership position in the first place? Why go to the trouble of engineering a race (although contemporary notions of race and ethnicity are irrelevant in this future) as potentially dangerous as the Dauntless? And most pressing of all, why would a community as supposedly intelligent as the Erudites come up with a scheme for seizing control as needlessly complicated and open to failure as that in the film, one which is even more senseless when you consider the destructive effects it would have on such a hermeneutically-sealed community? I have been lent the first book in the series, and hopefully, these questions of mine will be answered as I read through it.

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Despite the inevitable comparisons to the Hunger Games series and other works of “young adult” fiction that frequently are given a “privileged” position above the science fiction shelves in bookstores and libraries, I was reminded much more of Robert A. Heinlein while watching the film. Not only are there obvious echoes of Heinlein’s own juvenile novels, but of such key works as Beyond This Horizon, “Gulf,” and even Orphans of the Sky. Oddly enough, I was also reminded of “The Roads Must Roll,” with its critiques of functionalism and over-specialization. Heinlein’s famous dictum that “specialization is for insects” is certainly applicable to this movie, since the film criticizes the notion that people can easily be set into neat categories based on their social or cognitive competence, and champions not just individuals like Tris who try to rise above such attempts at pigeonholing, but views well-roundness as a virtue in of itself. Each faction is shown to have a certain flaw that comes as a result of over-specialization, Candors are blunt to the point of often being insulting, Erudites tend to be intrusive in their search for knowledge, and the Abnegation conceal the truth. The Dauntless, of course, tend to be overly violent as a consequence of their lack of fear. Ideally, the film seems to be saying, an individual should strive towards all the best virtues represented by each faction while playing down the flaws, not only so that they will be able to achieve universal competence, but learn how to treat people properly and be truly civilized. As one character says (and I paraphrase from memory) “I want to be brave, selfless, intelligent and honest and kind.” In addition to the critique of social categorization, the contrast between the mental traits of the factions sets up interesting possibilities to explore the nature of openness and secrecy in both social and interpersonal relationships, but these possibilities frustratingly go nowhere. The filmmakers could have learned well from Heinlein how to properly balance both thoughtfulness and entertainment, as the potentially fascinating themes dissipate in the last third in the morass of action and fight scenes. Heinlein also provided readers with similar action and excitement, of course, but it was never at the expense of the story’s themes or overall intelligence, and those who insist that good science fiction follow such rules will not be pleased with the direction the movie takes.

 

Some reviewers have regarded Divergent strictly from perceived allegorical elements, as being a commentary on high school cliques and social pressures. This would make the film essentially a reversal of the 1976 cult classic Massacre at Central High, itself a political allegory that used high schools and their students to comment on the nature of political violence and ideological conflict, and there are some surprising similarities. In Rene Daalder’s film (a personal favorite of mine), a trio of fearless bullies dominate their high school through the abusive use of their physical superiority and spend their leisure time indulging in such daredevil pursuits as hang gliding, high diving, and surfing. It’s much like a society where the Dauntless have the upper hand. The students they bully and lord over also, oddly enough, have parallels to the factions in Divergent, representing as they do different social types and political ideologies: there are elitist intellectuals, impoverished agrarians, the voiceless oppressed , even the equivalent of Candors in the form of Robert Carradine’s bohemian anarchist, the school’s only voice of honest political dissidence, who speaks out against the bullying in the form of graffiti on the walls and lockers. A Divergent arrives in the form of rebellious, working-class hero David (Derrel Maury) who stirs up trouble by encouraging the other students to stand up for themselves and fight back. When the bullies retaliate by crippling him, he then turns to full-blown murder, killing each of the thugs to fulfill his dreams of social liberation. But the newly-liberated students prove to be just as bad as those before them, intent on creating new systems of oppression based on their own ideologies, which sets the disillusioned David off on a second murder spree. It’s a fascinating, very well done film, one which is open to multiple readings and interpretations (like several others, I regard it as an allegory for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rise to power) and it is well worth one’s time.

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The makers of Divergent would have done well to have watched Daalder’s film as well if there was indeed allegorical intent at work, as the potentially fascinating themes and representations in their movie wind up being buried or swept aside by in favor of the cliches and conventions of the action film. Although Massacre at Central High,  successfully delivers all the violence promised in its title, it is never gratuitous but always done in the name of thematic relevance. Every death has emotional impact, no matter how unsympathetic the character, since the film went to the trouble of developing them beyond their symbolic value. This helps hit home the film’s messages about the stupidity of using violence to solve social problems, and that you can’t stop a bully by becoming an even bigger bully. In the film version of Divergent at least, the characters fail to get developed beyond their being representatives of various factions, and even at that, the fact that the factions themselves are insufficiently developed other than the Dauntless and the Abnegation (in particular, the Amity practically disappear from the film after the prologue). On the other hand, for an example of a contemporary filmmaker who understands very well how to make a cinematic allegory, Christopher Nolan has done an outstanding job of doing so with the Dark Knight trilogy.

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Although I’ve made my own criticisms, some of the other negative comments directed against the film have struck me as unfair and more revealing of the prejudices of the reviewers themselves than the actual film. Some have assailed the film as being anti-intellectual, even outright anti-science, for casting the Erudites as the main bad guys, making much of author Veronica Roth’s Christian beliefs (not unlike the Mormon-phobia that frequently accompanies critiques of Stephenie Meyer) in doing so. It’s an argument I don’t buy, since not only is it unclear if all or just some of the Erudites are in on the conspiracy, but the other factions are also shown to be just as flawed, especially when other members of Dauntless emerge as cold-blooded killers. In particular, both Jai Courtney’s Eric and Miles Teller’s Peter are shown to be thoroughly nasty and cruel individuals who are impossible to like, and it’s equally impossible to sympathize with the “might makes right” attitude they espouse. If anything, the film is trying to be critical not of intelligence or even ambition itself, but the impulsive desire to control others, as well as monomania as a social pathology. Still others have made much of how Kate Winslet’s coldly-calculating, power-hungry villain has seemingly been made up to look like Hillary Clinton. While the physical resemblances may be a coincidence, when it comes to the personality similarities, well, the truth sometimes hurts.

 

Shailene Woodley had previously co-starred with fellow Divergent cast member Miles Teller in one of 2013’s best films, The Spectacular Now.  In that winning little sleeper, her adolescent science fiction fan develops a romantic relationship with Teller’s booze-swilling young slacker-in-training, gradually coaxing him into maturity. Her character in that film would have likely enjoyed the book Divergent and maybe even might have liked the film adaptation, but two-thirds of the way through, she would have probably wished she was reading something by Wells or Heinlein instead.

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