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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