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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Divergent review: girls just wanna do everything

Divergent green light

No, it’s not wildly different than other science fiction, hero’s journey, and adventure movies. Sometimes we call such stories archetypal. Mythic, even.
I’m “biast” (pro): I am eager for movies — especially genre movies — with female protagonists

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Now see that, Hollywood! That wasn’t so hard, was it? To make a movie about a young woman doing cool kickass stuff and being the master of her own destiny… it didn’t sting too terribly much, did it, now? It looks like she might even get to save the world or something by the time the last of three-books-turned-into-four-movies comes around, and that won’t hurt, will it?

I hear the cries: “But Hunger Games!” Yes, Hunger Games. And? If there’s room enough in the entertainment universe for a hundred thousand movies about men being heroic and saving every-fucking-thing ever, there’s plenty space for a few more that happen to have women at their center.

And it’s true that Divergent is not wildly different than many of those other movies, particularly the ones in the science-fiction, hero’s-journey, and/or adventure subsets. Sometimes we call such stories archetypal. Mythic, even. That applies here, too, though it seems that some might have to squint to, I dunno, see past Shailene Woodley’s boobs or whatever is getting in the way. And it’s also true that the futuristic scenario Woodley’s newly minted grownup Beatrice finds herself living in has its issues with plausibility. So does Star Wars’s. So does Harry Potter’s. So does every movie based on a superhero comic book. Why, it’s almost as if some folks stop being able to suspend their disbelief when the protagonist looks a teensy bit less like them than she might. That doesn’t really say much for the imaginations of those who are supposedly into fantastical speculative fiction, does it?

Hmm, though. I wonder… Maybe Divergent does have something particular to say to girls that boys aren’t hearing. (Though they should.)

Okay: Beatrice’s world is like this. It’s sort of only gently postapocalyptic. The Chicago she lives in has been smartly retrofitted for her world of seemingly diminished resources; wind turbines cover the still-soaring sides of abandoned and partially crumbling skyscrapers, for instance. (Director Neil Burger [Limitless, The Illusionist] ensures this world has its own unique sci-fi look.) The great lake has receded dramatically, and the river is so low that trees are growing in it. An enormous wall encircles what is left of the city, supposedly to protect everyone from the Something Bad out there, but “the war” is also said to have killed everyone else, so what’s to protect from? (I’m sure we will learn, in upcoming films in the series, what is beyond the wall.) Whatever the propaganda, there are lush farms just outside the wall, tended by futuristic organic farmers. There’s clearly lots of high tech still in use. This is more like a colony planet outta Star Trek than the century after WWIII; Beatrice’s world looks like a pretty advanced scientific agrarian utopia.

Actually, though, her world is more like the sci-fi dystopias of 70s genre flicks — think Logan’s Run — where scratching the surface of a shiny happy future reveals the bad stuff needed to prop it up. Here, it’s how everyone in Beatrice’s society commemorates their coming of age by choosing which of the five societal Factions they will spend the rest of their lives in. The Factions are Candor, whose members are honest to a fault, and typically work as lawyers; Abnegation, whose members are selfless and perform community service, and who also currently lead the whole society in a political capacity; Erudite, whose members are intelligent and devoted to teaching and science, and some of whom believe their Faction should be the leaders; Dauntless, whose members are brave and daring, and who serve as police and protectors; and Amity, whose members are peaceful and happy, and who work as artists and farmers and the like. (Beatrice grew up in Abnegation, where her parents, portrayed by the fabulous duo of Ashley Judd [Olympus Has Fallen, Tooth Fairy] and Tony Goldwyn [The Mechanic, The Last House on the Left], are among the leadership.) Teens are tested to determine which Faction their talents and inclinations make them most suited for, and many stay with the Factions they were born into, but they can choose whichever one they want when the time comes. The catch is that once you choose, you’re stuck with that Faction… or else you become one of the underclass of Factionless, which is apparently a really bad thing to be.

Would this work in reality? Of course not. (Could a subculture of wizards successfully hide themselves among us muggles in a modern interconnected world? Unlikely.) Except we do live in a world in which many many many people are perfectly okay with saying, “You’re a girl, so you cannot do X, Y, or Z.” and “Because you’re a boy, A, B, and C are off limits for you.” And to challenge these attitudes is, for many, a harsh trial. At least in the world of Divergent, a choice is offered. In the real world, except for the very small percentage of people who are transgender or who otherwise fail to fit neatly into the male-female binary, we don’t get to choose whether we’re male or female, and all the baggage that comes along with either. (And of course transgender people don’t really “choose,” either; they’re just trying to deal with a “choice” that was seemingly made poorly for them.)

The key aspect of Beatrice’s story — why this is a story at all — is that she does not fit easily into the stupid divisions of her culture. That’s the whole point. She is Divergent: she embodies qualities and abilities of all the Factions. Like people do in real life. Divergent is about a young woman who is not comfortable being told she must be just one thing. Of course many girls and young women (and older women!) identify with that. Many boys and young men should, as well.

You can already guess the direction the actual plot takes. Beatrice joins Dauntless, because she has to choose one of the Factions and must keep her status as Divergent a secret, because Divergents are considered a dangerous threat to the system, for perfectly obvious reasons. She adopts a new name for her new life — Tris — and makes lots of new friends and enemies among her Dauntless peers; enemies include Peter (Miles Teller, and it’s fun to see Woodley reunited with her The Spectacular Now costar with them in diametrically opposite roles) and bullying Molly (Amy Newbold); friends include tough Christina (Zoë Kravitz: X-Men: First Class, It’s Kind of a Funny Story) and handsome, angsty, mysteriously monikered Four (Theo James: Underworld: Awakening, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). (If you could have heard the swoony screams of the teenaged girls packing the multiplex where I saw this when Tris kisses him, you would know that they don’t often get to see what they really want to see at the movies.)

And though she doesn’t quite realize at first that this is what she’s doing, Tris begins the project of bringing down the despotic regime that rules her world. Tris thinks she’s only trying to thwart a plot of villainous Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet: Labor Day, Movie 43). And Luke Skywalker only wanted to return a couple of droids to their rightful owner. I cannot wait to see Tris blow up the Death Star of cultural expectations by the time these movies are finished.

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Divergent (2014)
US/Can release: Mar 21 2014
UK/Ire release: Apr 04 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated HJ (contains a heroine’s journey)
MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
BBFC: rated 12A (contains moderate violence, threat)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Matt Clayton

    It’s not just defying the male-female gender expectations, but Veronica Roth’s usage of the five Factions also has something to say about bisexuality as well as transgender issues.

    I thought the film was okay — terrific cast, especially Shailene Woodley, but Kate Winslet was sorely underused. I can’t really see many Hunger Games comparisons, other than Katniss and Tris being strong female protagonists in dystopian worlds challenging the bureaucratic status quo.

    I’m surprised Lionsgate isn’t mulling a HG/Divergent crossover (author and right issues be damned)… that would be awesome. Katniss and Tris are far more likely to work together than fight one another.

  • cinderkeys

    I wanted so badly to like this movie as much as you did.

    The book was impossible to put down. Shailene Woodley is a really good actor. The film adaptation fell flat for me. Maybe it would’ve been better if I didn’t have the book to compare it to.

    One specific pet peeve: Can we stop with the supervillains who have real, legitimate political power, yet personally push the buttons and download the programs that cause bad things to happen? It’s not like they don’t have underlings to to that for them. I know, I know, it’s supposed to personalize the conflict, but it takes me right out of the movie.

  • Froborr

    Wait, it’s actually good? I’ll be honest, I looked at trailers and assumed it would be to Hunger Games as Percy Jackson is to Harry Potter. Might have to give this one a chance–and the fact that my nephew really wants to see it makes me happy that his conservative mom and MRA dad haven’t completely poisoned him yet. Maybe I should figure out a way to take him if he hasn’t seen it already.
    Only other comment: Some of the Faction names are nouns and some are adjectives. That physically hurts me. They couldn’t have had Erudition and Dauntlessness?

  • RogerBW

    I have read the source material, and found it… not good. It all came out terribly facile: you, yes you, dear reader, are super special unlike all those boring sheeple who fit in easily. Even your mom was cool once. Smart people are bad; don’t try to be like them. And so on.

    Where MaryAnn sees Tris’s story in the film as being about not fitting into one’s culture, I see the book as an exercise in constructing a culture that couldn’t possibly work, merely to give the protagonist something to rebel against. (There’s a fair bit of that in The Hunger Games too.)

    I’ve got no objection at all to stories about girls and women making it onto the screen. I just wish they could be better stories, not by-the-numbers emotional button-pushing like this.

  • yes you, dear reader, are super special unlike all those boring sheeple who fit in easily.

    That’s *exactly* what The Matrix is, and the fanboys feel all over themselves to worship it.

  • RogerBW

    Freely granted.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    In the Jesus allegory, are we meant to identify with Jesus?

  • RogerBW

    In the film, are you expected to identify with the guy who isn’t understood by his peers but who ends up with Cool Powers and a hot babe in vinyl?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    No, I don’t actually think you are supposed to identify with Neo. Although, I actually think the Wachowski Siblings are a bit confused on that issue, which led to the confused nature of the sequels.
    I do, however, think the audience is supposed to identify with Tris. (And also Katniss, although Katniss’s specialness is evidently informed by other characters and not by Katniss herself.)

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Right, this was the other movie I saw recently that was about 20 minutes too long. There where at least three extraneous characters needed to be excised from the script (though part of that is my being fed up with Jai Courtney’s smug fucking face). The one where the exposition characters kept getting killed before they delivered their exposition. Where I died a little of stupid when the story behind Four’s name was revealed.
    Not a bad move. Just kinda meh.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Or, isn’t the Jesus allegory a very specific variation on the hero’s journey? One where the hero is more than just “special”, but a literal god.

  • Oh, but I think The Matrix was such a huge hit because the fanboys *did* identify with Neo. The agent’s speech to him, about how he thinks he’s special and the rules don’t apply to him — and that turns out to be right! — is exactly what fanboys would like to think about themselves.

  • I don’t think so, but not every iteration of the hero’s journey is exactly identical to every other.

  • But many hero’s journey’s stories do turn out to be about men (almost always men) who have secret magical fathers and hence special powers that come with that. Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter jump immediately to mind.

  • Yeah, but what, exactly, was so evil about the Empire? Before the Death Star blows up Alderaan, is there *any* evidence for it being a bad thing? Why *does* Luke hate the Empire? Do we ever actually find out?

    Anyway, Tris is in the process of discovering there is a fight to be had. That’s part of the hero’s journey: discovering that the world is bigger than you ever realized.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    But neither Luke nor Harry is Jesus, or meant to be a stand-in for Jesus, the way Neo is.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    That the Empire is bad is laid out for the audience in the opening crawl. “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.” We could quibble about whether that’s good storytelling or not, but then again, it was a stylistic choice, in order to pay homage to a different storytelling style.

    But why is the audience being kept in the dark? Right now, the audience thinks the world stops at that (suddenly oddly unguarded) fence. Things happen in this movie for no apparent reason. Which, to me, says that this movie is not a complete story unto itself. That feels, again to me, like an abuse of the trilogy, and of episodic storytelling.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I think the fanboys grossly misinterpreted The Matrix, which in turn caused the Wachowski’s to likewise start to misinterpret their own story. That’s why Reloaded and Revolutions were, as I said, so confused.

  • I interpreted it that way, too, on the fanboys behalf. Time magazine even printed a letter I wrote discussing this! (It was the week of 9/11, so no one noticed and my one shot at fame was gone forever.)

  • But you could say the same about Star Wars! :->

    I don’t think the audience thinks the world stops at that fence. I think we hear the bullshit in that. Don’t you?

  • James Potter is magical. He certainly *is* special, and by extension so is Harry, compared to the rest of us muggles.

    See, I don’t think that Neo is a “stand-in” for Jesus. And even if he is, like I said, there isn’t one narrow hero’s journey story. And the archetype isn’t so much about how the audience sees the hero but what the hero experiences for himself.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I think the very brief mentions about how what’s outside the fence are so fleeting they could go either way. This movie clearly doesn’t want to talk about it. Any more than that, again, goes into spoiler territory. All I’ll say is that, lacking time to read the books, I asked people who had read them, because I wanted to know what this story is actually about. But not in a “Oh, I can’t wait to see what happens next” kind of way. Rather, in a “What the hell was that all about” way.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    But we can’t really compare James to Muggles because, for all intents and purposes, there aren’t any Muggles in the story. The only Muggles are the Dursleys, who know for a fact that magic exists, but choose to pretend it doesn’t. We have to compare Wizards to other Wizards, because that’s all they ever interact with. And compared to other Wizards, James and Harry are really rather ordinary. Really, the only book where “I’m special cause I’m a Wizard” is a plot point is the first book.

    Really? Cause the only thing he appears to be missing is a thorny crown. Besides that, I don’t think “The Matrix” is an apt comparison to “Divergence”.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Well, then, I think you’re misinterpreting it, too. :-P

    Also, that sucks. :(

  • Z

    I recently read the book and it’s impossible to put down. However when I saw the movie, I thought it was alright although it could have been better

  • We’ll have to disagree.

  • Smith

    I’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie, but I find your positive review surprising because my sister has often told me how offensive she finds the series from a feminist perspective. I got her permission to reproduce her comments here:

    “I would say this review is an absolutely perfect example of why I think Divergent is so dangerous. Divergent is not overtly propagating inequality. In fact, it has the surface of being a female empowerment thing, which makes it all the more dangerous.

    “I saw at the beginning that she hasn’t read the book, which I think also contributes to her liking the movie. The main criticism of the movie (and the criticism that she seems to be tackling) is that it is similar to the Hunger Games. That is a stupid critique of the movie, though, since the movie-makers don’t control that at all–that’s due to the plot of the book. And I agree with her on this point: Stop making a big deal about it because it’s all dystopian literature. You can’t expect the different stories to not include all the same tropes if they are in the same sub-genre, adolescent dystopia.

    “I think the book is dangerous because of the way it seems to be empowering females but actually it is subtly sending the other message, so young girls mindlessly absorb it.

    “When Tris joins Dauntless, she de-feminizes herself, cutting her hair, getting new tough clothes, getting a tattoo and taking a less girly name. This suggests that the toughness and violence in Dauntless is not feminine because femininity is weak.

    “Tris is literally obsessed with Four’s body. She mentions it ALL the time. In certain ways her obsession could be okay because it was just a reversal of the male gaze. But I somehow, it doesn’t seem right to say that a young girl idolizing a a male body is female empowerment.

    “Four is consistently doing rash things without consulting her first, and she just goes along with it even though she doesn’t know what’s happening. In EVERY situation she’s in danger, Four saves her. There is not a single example of male-female friendship in the book–it is all romantic between opposite sexes. There is one guy, Al, who likes Tris and she doesn’t like him back, so he commits suicide, and when she gets sort of upset by this Four comes to comfort her and the scene turns into romance instead of grief for this poor guy’s death. Also, the final climactic scene is Four under mind control of the bad people, beating up Tris. She keeps taking the hits and trying to get him to “see her.” Finally, Four’s eyes are unclouded, he realizes what he is doing, gets control of himself, and they go destroy the maniacal, evil woman political leader (another stereotype) together. This, obviously, is terrible because it fulfills the lie that women in abusive relationships believe. They stay in abusive relationships because they continually believe that if they can get their man to see them for who they are, to return to the way things were and to get back to the old romance it will all be fine. They hold out and wait for him to realize that he’s doing the wrong thing. Men rarely repent in real life. But in Divergent Four does, feeding into this lie, painting it as truth. It scares me that young girls are being told that if they just take the beatings, he will eventually change.

    “Anyway, people glaze over all of this simply because the protagonist is female and she kicks some people, so therefore it must be female empowerment.”

    Thoughts? From my exposure to bits of the books and movie, this series seems pretty problematic to me.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Please tell me that emphasis on the fence does not mean this series is going to employ the same plot gimmick as The Village. Because that would be awful.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Well, not the same one. >.>

  • Except for the fight scene, none of that stuff happens in the movie. And I did not see a metaphor for abusive relationships in the fight scene. Maybe it seems that way in the book, but I don’t see how that can be read into the scene in the film, because there’s no way you can characterize Tris and Four’s relationship in the movie as abusive in any way.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Or, alternatively, Abnegated, Candid, and Amicable.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Veronica Roth’s usage of the five Factions also has something to say about bisexuality as well as transgender issues.

    Like what?

  • Matt Clayton

    Like Tris’ discovering she is Divergent, but chooses to identify herself as Dauntless until the end of the film. She chooses to embrace all of herself (rather than one element), and I can see the context of that. There’s a certain double-standard for people who self-identify as bi, because they’re seen as partly closeted or perverted. There’s an unspoken ultimatum that either you’re straight or you’re gay, but you can’t be attracted to both sexes.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I’m not sure how these fairly standard “just be yourself” tropes hold up as metaphors for sexuality and gender when the rest of the story is as aggressively cis-gendered and hetero as this one is.

  • Matt Clayton

    I like to read beyond those tropes, dammit!

    … just kidding.

  • rosie1843

    I’ve seen the movie. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t exactly set me on fire. I was a little turned off by the remake of the Buffy-Angel romance . . . especially the statutory rape aspect of it.

  • What is “the Buffy-Angel romance,” and where is the statutory rape?

  • CB

    Neo is a Messiah figure *and* you’re supposed to identify with him. He’s the only character whose normal life we see any of, he’s the audience’s connection to regular life, and gateway to the wider world: A regular guy working a terrible office job with a hobby he’d rather they not know about, who knows nothing of the greater conflict except a sense that somehow the world is wrong — until the fateful day where he realizes that he was Meant For Something (a fate he is reluctant to fully accept, like a regular person). Every part of him is designed to say “this could be you”. Even Keanu’s blank-slate acting makes self-projection easier.

    The difference between his story and the story of Jesus is that with Jesus we only see two parts: His birth, accompanied by angels telling his parents that this is the Messiah, and his adulthood, where he’s already well aware of his nature and is proselytizing and gathering disciples. If we didn’t meet Neo until after he’d already become The One, then I’d agree we weren’t meant to identify with him — like how Morpheus is not identifiable because we never see him as something other than the John the Baptist figure. Crazy religious leader is not supposed to be relateable. Regular guy who discovers a greater destiny is.

    Just because the Jesus-figure is more literal in The Matrix than in other stories of Chosen Ones doesn’t mean the hero of this hero’s journey isn’t meant to be identified with in the same way Jesus isn’t. The proof is in the pudding.

    It’s weird you say fanboys relating to Neo affected the Wachowskis and this made the sequels confused, when it’s in the Matrix that Neo is identifiable, and it’s in the sequels where he’s already The Savior and is detached from humanity. So if their intent was for the audience not to self-identify with Neo in the Matrix, but for them to do so in the sequels, then they got it completely backwards. But I don’t think the structure of Neo’s character in The Matrix was an accident or screw-up, and neither were audience’s reaction.

    If it was an accident, then it was a happy one, because otherwise there’s nobody for the audience to connect with in the movie.

    I think the sequels were confused because they’d used all their good ideas in The Matrix, and painted themselves into a corner with the ending of Matrix, which was perfect with it’s “I’m not here to tell you how this is going to end”, and then Neo flying off like Super-Jesus-man.

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