What were you like when you were 16? Most of us, if we’re honest, were probably pretty horrible as teenagers. We thought we knew better than our parents and teachers, but at the same time, we were terrified we didn’t know anything at all. We thought we were invincible, while being scared of all sorts of unknown things. It’s an awkward in-between kind of age, because you’re not really a child any more, but you’re still a long way off being an adult. So being forced to make a massive decision that will completely define the rest of your life at that age seems pretty mean. But that’s how the dystopian, post-apocalyptic world of Divergent arranges itself, and as a result, it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.
In the ruins of Chicago, supposedly the only city to survive a terrible war, society has been split into five factions, each of which represents a different attribute and represents a slightly different way of life. There’s Abnegation, the selfless ones; Erudite, the clever ones; Dauntless, the brave ones; Amity, the peaceful ones; and Candour, the honest ones. Soon after they turn 16, all the teens in Chicago have to choose a faction. Well, first they have to undergo a test, which involves being strapped into a device that can read their thoughts and being injected with a drug that makes them hallucinate. Then they’re told which faction they fit into, though they’re still technically free to choose a different one in an elaborate bloodletting ritual held in front of the entire city.
Confused yet? It’s a lot of information to take in, and Divergent hammers it home by explaining everything first through a voiceover and then through a series of boringly repetitive conversations. What it doesn’t explain, though, is why the world is set up like this, and how it could possibly work. Each faction supposedly has a purpose to serve in the world – Amity are farmers, for example, while Dauntless act like a really annoying version of the military – but there seem to be a lot of social functions left undone. Plus, despite the claim that these factions have been set up to keep the peace and prevent any further wars, it’s glaringly obvious that the system doesn’t work, and the factions don’t get on.
I might be over-explaining the movie’s premise here, but Divergent is all explanation and very little story. Our way into the world is Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), a conflicted teen who isn’t sure where she fits into a world that’s obsessed with conformity. Despite being told to trust the test, her results are inconclusive, leaving her to pick her future for herself – while simultaneously trying to hide the fact that she’s, dun dun dun, Divergent. After picking one, she has to push her mind and body to breaking point to prove herself worthy of a place in the system, only to uncover a massive conspiracy that threatens to rip the factions apart completely. Oh, and there’s a hot-but-mean guy she falls in love with along the way, too.
All the young adult beats are present and correct; it’s hard not to notice, specifically, the bits that mirror plot points from The Hunger Games, while the aptitude test could easily be replaced with Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat. Vast chunks of the world building also seem to have been nicked from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, although all the sex has been stripped out. But while the references are easy to pick up on, it’s not quite so easy to figure out what Divergent is trying to say about all of this. It’s clear that the way their society is set up isn’t working, but difficult to see why anyone, at any point in time, might have thought it would. The characteristics that supposedly separate people aren’t mutually exclusive, and there’s no reason you’d want them to be – why would you deliberately encourage clever people not to be brave, or brave people not to be kind? The divisions make about as much sense as asking a child who their favourite Power Ranger is, or their favourite member of One Direction, and divvying up the world accordingly.
It’d be one thing if the politics in the movie were making a point about the politics of the world we live in, but while it’s possible to draw a couple of morals from the events of the film, they’re not very coherent. It seems like the idea is that it’s more important to be an individual than part of a tribe, except being Divergent is better than any of the others. Violence is bad, except when it’s cool. Selflessness is good but boring, and cleverness isn’t to be trusted. But jumping off moving trains is the awesomest thing anyone could ever do.
The further into Divergent you get, the more perplexing it is. It doesn’t help that, despite Shailene Woodley’s best efforts, Tris is a complete blank slate. The plot hinges on her getting to know her true self, but she hasn’t got much to work with. It’s hard to identify with her when she’s just an empty space. The other characters don’t fare much better, either; Theo James pulls a series of intense faces as the daftly named love interest Four, but his backstory is so generic it might as well not exist, while Miles Teller is almost completely wasted in the Draco Malfoy role. Even Kate Winslet can’t do much to imbue her character with much in the way of inner life. And without characters to draw you in and bring their bizarre world to life, all you’re left with is an incomprehensibly messy made-up world that’s neither appealing in a cosy Hogwarts-y way nor a believably frightening dystopia a la District 12. It’s all just a bit pointless, really.
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