Choose Your Destiny (Poorly)
Around the same time that Marvel was just starting to figure out their whole superhero cinema thing, the YA movie boom was in full effect in Hollywood. This, of course, was brought on by the YA novel boom from a few years earlier, and every studio wanted to find their own YA series to adapt and expand upon. The Harry PotterFirst released as a series of books (starting in the UK before moving worldwide), the Harry Potter series gained great acclaim before even becoming a series of successful movies. Now encompassing books, films, a prequel series, and a successful two-part play, the series even now shows no end in sight. franchise was joined by the likes of The Hunger Games and Twilight, and each of those went on to become multi-billion dollar franchise. For a while there business was good.
The thing I think Hollywood failed to understand was that the boom in these types of films -- films, we should note, that weren't really unified by any specific themes but simply because they were written for people of a certain young age -- was that the films based on these books were popular because the novels themselves had grand, cross-cultural appeal. You couldn't just take YA franchise and turn it into a billion dollar film series; the fandom had to be there first to make the series popular. Case in point: The Divergent Saga.
The first novel in this series (which I haven't read and, after watching this film, have no plans to) was written by Veronica Roth in 2011 and was immediately snatched up not only for publication but also to become a series of films. The novel hadn't even really gotten into people's hands before Lionsgate (who also made The Hunger Games) said, "hey, this could be the next Hunger Games!" It wasn't. In fairness, the novels were successful, selling 6.7 Mil copies over their lifespan, but that pales in comparison to the 65 Mil copies sold for The Hunger Games novels. The difference is key to understanding why Divergent was never going to be the cash cow Lionsgate wanted. The fandom wasn't there.
It also doesn't help that, frankly, the story isn't there either. This is a very shallow post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale that plays around in very well-trodden territory. The subject of the story -- a civilization that saw near-world ending war and now divides itself into five castes so it can rule itself peacefully by keeping the castes separate -- reads like a dumbed-down version of Planet of the ApesAlthough originally started with the 1963 novel, La Planete des singes, it's fair to say that the Apes franchise truly began with the 1968 film that kick started the original Fox film series and has helped tto keep these intelligent primates in the public conciousness for years. (without the apes) or The Hunger Games without the hunger or the games). Plus, the fact that almost everyone in the society aside from three or four key figures gives the whole production a Logan's Run vibe (without Logan, the run, or all the adults dying in a big, stupid ceremony). In short, it feels like a whole bunch of ideas cobbled together without any though about how this society should work. It's really stupid.
In the film we're introduced to heroine and protagonist Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) who gives us the run down (via tedious voice over) of the society. The city of Chicago is the only surviving enclave after a great war that wiped out the rest of the world (or so we're told). The remaining survivors organized themselves in five groups to help rebuild society and keep the peace: Abnegation (the selfless politicians), Amity (the peaceful farmers), Candor (the obnoxiously honest lawyers), Dauntless (the brave security forces), and Erudite (the smarty-pants intellectuals). Together these five groups keeps society going in perfect harmony while overseeing the Factionless, the poor of society that don't fit into any of the groups.
Beatrice, or "Tris" as she eventually prefers to be called, has never felt like she fit in with her caste, Abnegation, and on her day of choosing she elects to move over to Dauntless, a choice that not only takes her away from her family ("faction before family") but it's a choice that she also can't take back. Once you take your faction you're never allowed to leave. Thus begins her training in Dauntless along with her group of peers that are new to this faction, Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), and Al (Christian Madsen). Together they train under Four (Theo James) to learn the ways of Dauntless. But as their training goes on, Tris starts to suspect there's something nefarious going on. Erudite has been making rumblings for years that they don't think Abnegation should be in charge of society, but only 4ris suspects that Erudite might be making plans to overthrow the government. They would just need an army, a Dauntless army, to do it...
There are numerous issues I have with the setup of this film, start to finish, but the first issue really stems from the whole concept of the society. The five groups in charge of the city don't really have enough roles baked within to handle the operation and running of said city. You have farmers and lawyers, politicians and scientists and soldiers, but where are the people that actually maintain the infrastructure? Who changes the light bulbs, or fixes the roads, or keeps the trains (that are conspicuously still running) going on time? Hell, where are the creatives? The Dauntless students all get tattoos about midway into the film but who designed those tattoos? No one that's in any of these listed groups has the training to do anything of this and, hell, someone that wanted to would be considered "Divergent" and would be shunned by the rest of society.
This might not seem like a big deal -- this is a post-apocalyptic society in a city that still sees the pockmarks of war -- but it's necessary to think of all this when you're looking at a world that had been going for, presumably, hundreds of years and is considered "functioning". Within the bounds of this society there would be no one to make the cool bowls used in the choosing ceremony (no ceramics artists), no one to make the fancy clothes the factions wear (no fashion designers), no one to make the fabrics used in those clothes (no textiles workers or people to repair those machines). There are basic, fundamental flaws in this society, at least as presented in the movie, and I could never really get my brain around it to start accepting the world as presented. This world makes no sense.
Beyond that, it's just had to invest in the idea that this society actually works, in large part because we never really see it working. The story is told solely from the perspective of 4ris (in, essentially, first-person and third-person limited). She's a low-level student in Dauntless so we don't really know how her new faction works, and the film never spends enough time on any other faction for us to truly understand how anything gets done. We just see pretty people standing around a posing in various ways while Dauntless idiots go running through the city like Extreme Sports douche-bros. We're told this whole systems works and the peace is kept, but all we're shows is teenagers being idiots for an hour and a half, and then society crumbles. It's shallow to the point of stupidity.
Hell, we never really even get enough in the film to care about 4ris She has a minor struggle with who she should be, that's entirely internalized so we're never let into her thought process, then she's suddenly in Dauntless. From there we get the most shallow of training montages, like the creators said, "they did this in The Hunger Games, so lets do it here." 4ris, it should be noted, is no Catniss (despite a similar sounding name), and her action is unconvincing and terrible. We don't ever get enough to believe she's somehow a capable soldier that can take on the obvious team up of Erudite and Dauntless so, when that inevitably happens, super-soldier 4ris comes off as laughable. She's never presented as a superhero that can save civilization.
Some of the fault is in the script, which tries to cram a 400-plus page book into a template set by The Hunger Games. Some of the fault, I'm sure, is in the book and its original setup for this whole world. But some also lies at the feet of Shailene Woodley. Maybe she's a great actress is other works but she seems entirely in over her head trying to play an action heroine in this world. The film doesn't give her much to work with, it's true, but she also doesn't find any way to rise above it. She's the key player in every scene, every set-piece. It's her film and that means the weight of it is on her shoulders and, sadly, she's not quite a good enough actress here to carry it. I don't know, frankly, if Jennifer Lawrence (who made The Hunger Games as good as it was) could have solid this bad film, but I think she would have been better up to the challenge. Woodley was not.
What annoyed me more than anything else, though, was the way the film constantly had to name-drop "Divergent" every chance it got. It's a silly sounding word (frankly, all the factions are), but hearing all the actors say it with hushed tones, like it's somehow Voldemort and just saying it will bring a Divergent person to you, is laughable. "You're divergent," one character says to 4ris and they try to say it with such venom but all I could do was mock it. The film really never manages to sell anything about its world, including its titular central conflict.
I went into Divergent knowing that this was the film series that basically killed the YA boom -- Lionsgate overestimated the appeal of these stories, bet big, and then ended up canceling the last film before the series could be completed, ending not only this series but Hollywood's desire to make YA-based films -- but I did want to give it a chance. Instead I found a movie that was deserving of the title "this killed a genre.". I think somewhere, deep down in this mess, with the right writers and a creative team willing to give the film it's own look and feel that wasn't just cribbed from The Hunger Games, maybe there could have been a good movie made out of the concept. This is not that film, and something tells that it's overall spectacular failure will ensure no one tries to make another Divergent adaptation again.
But hey, we have two more movies to go so we can see just how bad this gets...