Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Divergent", or "How To Survive the Apocalypse and Still Get to Kiss a Boy."

So this is what it looks like when the Age of Teenaged Boys in movie culture starts to ebb, and the Age of Teenaged Girls begins to rise.  One might even wonder just when this Dystopia-for-Girls fad will come to an end.  Through how many games must we go hungry, or through how many mazes must we run, before we pass puberty and get to wear black leather, get cool tattoos, hang with vampires, lose our virginity and overthrow all the fascist societies current popular fiction can throw at us?  Geez, Louise, but if Mad Max stumbled across some place like these supposedly-dystopian cultures during his wanderings after the bombs fell, he’d get disgusted pretty dang quickly and run back to Thunderdome with a smile.

Well, anyways, here comes the first installment of the latest “Young Adult” film franchise, Divergent, based on a fairly-popular recent novel by Veronica Roth.  At some point a hundred or so years in our future, after some “war” that resulted in all of the world except Chicago becoming uninhabitable (yeah, Chicago – go figure), we find what’s left of humanity all under the age of thirty (or at least it looks like the vast majority of it is – maybe this is after the Logan’s Run experiment failed) and divided into five “factions,” each of which serves a different purpose in society.  Those factions are Abnegation (the selfless servants, and the faction currently governing), Amity (the kind and charitable), Candor (the honest, mostly lawyers), Erudite (the intelligent and scholarly) and Dauntless (the brave, which in this world means the soldiers and cops, but these soldiers/cops are all into free-running for some reason).  Sadly, some folks don’t fit into any of these, and remain “faction-less” (or “bums,” as some of us might have called them).

As children reach the age of sixteen, they are tested to see if they are better-suited to remain in the faction of their birth for the remainder of their lives, or if they may have attributes that would be better put to use in another faction.  By some quirk of law, however, when the day comes for them to submit to the ceremony that assigns them to their future faction, they are free to choose ANY faction.  This testing procedure sometimes reveals a child who is “divergent,” meaning that he or she doesn’t fit into any of society’s molds, and is quickly eliminated in the interest of maintaining social order.

Along comes Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), from an Abnegation family, who takes the test and is found to be a Divergent.  The test’s administrator risks her own life by quelching the test’s result and sending Beatrice away, swearing her to secrecy.  When her Choosing Day comes, Beatrice surprises everyone by spurning her own faction and choosing to join the Dauntless (no doubt thrilled by the “bad boys” as every sixteen-year old girl ever born is).  Renaming herself “Tris,” she struggles against hostile drill sergeants, snotty fellow initiates and her attraction to an older instructor to become worthy of the thrill-seeking Dauntlesses.

The first half of the film moves along at a good pace, and while a little over-the-top in it’s trying to be allegorical about society’s labeling folks, I didn’t find it boring.  Seeing Tris begin to come of age and find a direction for her life held my interest, and for that, plenty of praise for Shailene Woodley is merited.  All too often, mid-twenty-somethings are asked to portray teenagers, but all too often, they aren’t convincing.  I did find it easy to accept the 22-year old Woodley as the late-teenaged Beatrice, however.  The flip side to this was twenty-eight year old Theo James as Four, Tris’s instructor/paramour.  Portraying some unspecified age that I took to be along the lines of twenty-four or twenty-five, he sorta gave me the willies with his Mad-Love for the seventeen or eighteen-year old Tris.  I guess guys will still go for high school-aged chicks even after the Apocalypse.

The second half of the movie got pretty silly (for lack of a more eloquent adjective), however, as Tris learns of the Erudites’ plan to use the Dauntlesses as an unwitting army in their plot to overthrow the Abnegations.  Her failure to succumb to some mind-control serum reveals her to be a Divergent, and thanks to some incredibly well-timed intervention from her Mommy, she manages to escape her own execution and lead the team of rebels who thwart the Erudites and start the resistance movement that presumably will someday free all the huddled masses from… blah, blah, blah…

Personally, I’ve always preferred to have the protagonist of any story I’m watching or reading find his/her own way out of trouble, and it’s pretty much always a turn-off when I see a “hero” having his/her fat pulled out of the proverbial fire by some random bit of luck or some other character conveniently swooping in at the precise moment said hero is about to get whacked.  But I digress…

There are several things to like about Divergent, despite my rolling my eyes at it a bit too often to declare it a success.  Shailene Woodley is terrific in the lead role, and if there is an actress who may be Jennifer Lawrence’s spiritual twin working in movies these days, she must be it.  Lenny Kravitz’ little girl Zoe as a fellow Dauntless initiate was also captivating, and thankfully, her role never degenerated into any sort of giggly BFF-type.  Kate Winslet, however, who was most likely cast with the intention of providing enough gravitas to make audiences think of the movie as something more than teenaged-fare, didn’t have much to work with, as her part as the Erudite leader was so undeveloped that it could’ve been played by just about any other capable film actress.

Director Neil Burger manages to tell a sort of coming-of-age story in such a way that even one such as I could remain interested, and I found the visual depiction of this city sealed off from the rest of the world very impressive, but the third act of the plot really spirals down to a Bella/Edward/Jacob level of drama, which plays better to schoolgirls on the printed page than to mass audiences on film.   Burger gave us the very interesting movie The Illusionist several years ago, and more recently, the mildly popular Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless (which I have not yet seen, but about which I have heard good things), so despite my reservations about Divergent’s source material, I had higher hopes for this than I had for The Hunger Games (and let’s face it folks – without Hunger Games, there wouldn’t be any Divergent).  

I found myself asking questions of the movie that it never answered; namely about such things as details about this “war” that left Chicago in such dang good shape, and what awful things may lie beyond the microwave tower-looking fences that now surround the city.  Such answers are never given, or even hinted, but I will assume all that is to be fodder for the already-planned sequels next year and the year after that.  I recall having much the same number of questions about the universe of The Hunger Games, with a similar lack of answers there.  With how well this movie managed to pull off the details of this world, and even create a character that interested me, it was a disappointment that it didn’t manage to find a way to tell a story that didn’t make we wonder when the post-adolescent vampires were going to show up.