by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
You know what I miss? Films with endings. And I mean proper endings. Ones where everything is tied up, all of the characters have completed their respective arcs and everyone is in a new status-quo that has a clear direction for the future. Yeah, sure, you can leave some things open if you want that sequel tease or you could go the ambiguous route but the important part is that there is a sense of finality to proceedings. That it’s over. That the film’s world will now go on in this new equilibrium as we leave it, at least for now. That I can stop being involved in its world and characters if it hasn’t grabbed me because at least it told all the story it needed to tell.
Sadly, thanks to the combined global dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Harry Potter series and Hollywood’s continued learning of the wrong lessons from the both of them, films don’t have endings any more. They have stopping points. Cliffhangers. Unresolved stories that resemble old film serials that would tell you to “Come back next week for the thrilling conclusion!” only ‘next week’ is ‘next year’ and each instalment wastes nearly three hours of your life a go instead of 10 minutes. Oh, and film serials used to actually wrap-up enough that you could stop watching them without feeling like you’re missing anything major.
As you may have gathered, Divergent doesn’t end so much as it screams in your face “THE EPIC TALE WILL CONTINUE NEXT YEAR, SEE YOU THEN AND MAKE SURE TO BRING MONEY!” But that’s only where the derivative nature of Divergent begins. It’s like somebody attempted to scientifically engineer the next big young adult book and film series by stealing from pretty much everything else on the market, following all of the genre conventions and tropes to a tee at all times (the final half hour is practically the film ticking off the last free spots on its bingo card in quick succession), not even trying to hide its high school parallels (to make it more relatable to average and ordinary teenage girls just like you) and with writing and directing and acting that are just decent enough to skirt by without my feeling confident enough to call it outright dreadful, despite it being so, because it’s just too competently made and stars too many people I like doing just good enough of a job to make me label it a total failure.
In other words, they’ve finally done it, ladies, gentlemen and others. Hollywood and literature have finally found a formula that enables them to print money.
Our story, then; which, by the way, and as an added insult, takes two hours and twenty-three minutes to tell (and does it ever feel like it). It is the unspecified post-apocalyptic future (because there is no other kind of future) and Chicago thrives among the ruins thanks to a strict faction-based system. There are the Erudite, who are smart, the Amity, who are peaceful and do absolutely nothing in this movie so feel free to forget they exist, the Candor, who are overly truthful or maybe just can’t tell lies it’s rather unclear, the Abnegation, who are do-gooder-goody selfless types, and the Dauntless, who are action-y and jocky and they free-run everywhere like it’s still 2006. Or, to put it another way, you have The Nerds, The Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film-s, The Gossipers, The Politically Active and The Jocks. No, the high school parallels are not better hidden than that. Anyways, at age 16, the Chicago inhabitants are forced to take a test that tells them which of those groups they are best suited for and then they get to choose for themselves, with the caveat that they are locked into their chosen faction for life and cannot ever switch or leave or go back to their families if they’re in a separate faction ever, otherwise you become Faction-less, or, in high school terms, That Weirdo Kid Who Doesn’t Associate Themselves With Anyone.
Now, you may be asking yourself, or me if you’d prefer this to be a two-way conversation, “OK, so, why do the undefined masters of this universe make them take the test if they’re just going to let the people choose their own factions anyway?” That’s a good question and one that I don’t have an answer to because the film doesn’t have one either. It seems to think that having its lead character openly question the reasoning for this for about five seconds is enough to paper over the mess but they’re wrong. You may also be asking, “Right, so, why ARE they stuck in this faction system? Is there somebody ruling over them?” The answer is no. There is a government, run by the Abnegation because reasons, but they don’t seem to do anything and it still doesn’t explain how this system came into being in the first place. It’s not The Hunger Games, is what I’m getting at. “Sure, so, why is everybody sticking to it despite there clearly being unrest and, in any sane universe, some people who would object to such a strict dictatorial system?” To ‘keep the peace’, apparently. “So why has nobody attempted to organise an overthrow of such a system seeing as there is quite literally no reason to keep going along with this?” Err…
So our heroine is Beatrice (Shailene Woodley, gods-frakkin-dammit) who is an Abnegate but who dreams of becoming a Dauntless, presumably because the people of post-apocalyptia have suddenly found free-running cool again because it’s certainly not down to their personalities (surprise, The Jocks are dicks until you do something awesome enough to earn their respect). So she takes her test only to find out that she’s Divergent meaning that she doesn’t fit into any one of those categories which therefore makes her the most important threat to the unclear and undefined leaders of this dystopian Chicago. Forced to hide her true identity, she joins up with the Dauntless and begins her training as one of them whilst the audience waits for something to happen that justifies this being a story worth their time. And waits. And waits. And waits. And waits. And waits. And waits. And waits. And waits. And waits. And…
Yes, I do believe you have a question, feel free to ask it! “So, are Divergents rare?” Yes, apparently so. So, naturally, most of the people that the newly rechristened Tris cares most about are also Divergent because that’s how surprise plot twists work, duh. “Why are Divergents a threat, then?” Because, wait for it, ‘they can’t be controlled’. “You didn’t answer my question.” Because they’re a threat to the system. “But WHY?!” Because they can’t be controlled. “Yes, I get that part, but… OK, who controls the peace?” The Dauntless. “OK, that makes sense in a way but I’m going to ask this anyway, why?” Because they’ve been commanded to. “By who?” F*ck if I know. “So why?” Because they’ve been commanded to. “BY WHO?!” The System, I guess. “Which is run by…?” I haven’t got a clue. “SO WHY IS EVERYBODY STILL STICKING TO THIS IDIOTIC SYSTEM AND WHY ARE DIVERGENTS A THREAT TO ITS PAPER-MACHE CONSTRUCTION?” …it sounds cool? “NO IT F*CKING DOESN’T!!”
As you may have gathered, this world makes no sense. Look, I am willing to give films dramatic leeway when it comes to constructing worlds. I will put my suspension of disbelief on the line for a lot of things (need I remind you of Need For Speed), but there comes a point where I am going to feel insulted by just how much suspension of disbelief I need to enjoy a movie. Divergent’s world is basically the result of what would happen if the protagonist from The Lonely Island song ‘Threw It On The Ground’ wrote a work of fiction. I genuinely wouldn’t have been surprised if one of the characters had just suddenly burst out with “You can’t trust the system, MAAAN!!” It’s all oppressive class structures and regimented social cliques and “your individuality is what makes you so special so don’t worry if you don’t fit into what ‘society’ deems to be acceptable groups” without any of the effort required to make any of it hold up to people who think about the premise for more than five seconds.
And I wouldn’t have spent all that time picking apart the stupid, stupid, stupid nature of the film’s universe if the film had even the slightest grasp of the concept of pacing. This is a film that is two and twenty-three minutes and you had better believe that I felt every single one of those minutes pass by me. Fact of the matter is, there is no narrative propulsion to this film. For two of those hours, I had no idea what the end goal was and I don’t mean that in the way that, say, a great thriller constantly pulls the rug out from under you in a way that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I mean that I literally had no idea, for a good 90 minutes after Tris joins up with the Dauntless, what the film was supposed to be building towards. Nothing happens, nothing adequately threatens Tris, in all honesty when you think about it… she just trains.
For what, I don’t know. She trains. And she falls in love with, and I would like to give you a second to adequately prepare yourself here because I am about to impart to you the stupidest name for a love interest in a film supposedly grounded in some kind of reality of all-time, a boy called Four (Theo James who you may recognise as That Dick James from The Inbetweeners Movie), and vice versa, by virtue of him literally being the only guy who is not a complete and total dick to her at some point. Other than those two things, nothing happens until the final 20 minutes. I appreciate a film taking the time out to craft its characters, flesh out its supporting cast so that, when they inevitably bite the bullet for pathos, I actually feel something instead of a burning desire to hold in my urge to go to the bathroom. However, a good film is capable of doing this whilst keeping the pace up, that’s why you have actual character beats in action scenes instead of just mindless carnage, and Divergent instead just holds off even revealing the end goal until it feels we’ve spent enough time with its cast and/or it’s finished wanking off to its own masterwork.
And, if you’ll indulge me the chance to twist the knife a little further, I still didn’t even care about the film’s cast of characters because they can all still be boiled down to their archetype without losing much in the way of anything. The cast of Divergent is made up of Protagonist, Love Interest, Best Friend, Best Friend Who Betrays Protagonist, Dickhole Drill Instructor Who Turns Out To Be Evil Because Dickhole Are Naturally Evil, Person Who First Finds Out Protagonist’s Secret But Doesn’t Do Anything In This Film (But May Do Something Later), Protagonist’s Mother and Father and Brother (listed in order of importance) and, last and least, Evil Villain Lady Who Is Evil. None of them are interesting, few are particularly likeable and not a single one of them manages to adequately justify spending nearly two hours in their company whilst waiting for the plot to start. An infinitely, infinitely better version of this film could have cut an hour out. A full hour; at least then there’d be enough of a pace going on that my mind wouldn’t be pulling apart the flimsy mechanics of the film’s universe like I’m a godsdamn philosopher.
“But that would cut out all of the characters and character work that will pay off in the sequels!” shouts the, likely, lone Divergent book series fan reading this review. Maybe so. Do you know what would happen, though? STUFF! Things would happen on-screen! Events would occur! Character arcs would actually be completed instead of hanging unresolved, plot threads would have some closure and the whole enterprise would have accomplished something besides wasting two hours and twenty-three minutes of my preciously short life. Hell, we might have even gotten through some of the second book’s material! Wouldn’t that have been something?
In all fairness, there is some decent stuff here buried under the stupidity and the snail pacing. For one, there’s great casting going on here for what little material there is available to everyone. Shailene Woodley (who, gods-frakkin-dammit, deserves better than this) proves to be an ably capable lead actress who could be the more homely Jennifer Lawrence if the script was willing to help her (because Woodley is trying really, really hard to make this tripe work). Theo James can smoulder with the best of them, as it turns out, and he too seems more than willing to make this whole venture work if the script would meet him halfway. Maggie Q gets a couple of monologues that prove that her time spent on Nikita really strengthened up her dramatic chops. Sam Worthington Jai Courtney (sorry, sorry, I legitimately kept mistaking him for Worthington throughout the film) actually turns in a great performance for once in his miserable career as a complete and total arsehole. Miles Teller does similarly great work in a similarly thankless role. Zoë Kravitz is able to strike up a nice friendly chemistry with Woodley for the relatively limited time she’s in the film for. The weak link is a checked out Kate Winslet and the only reason she sticks out is because she’s the only one who doesn’t seem to be trying to make this crap work.
There are some cool looking mind-space sequences that, admittedly, have been done way better by pretty much every other film ever made that attempts to tackle that subject but, and this is important, stuff happens in them. They also feature some nice camera tricks and transitions that actually managed to cause my brain to switch back on and take focus for a short while at a time. Action scenes are competently staged; they still make usage of shaky-cam to hide more physical violence but you can at least tell who’s hitting who and how hurt they are. Well, until guns come into play in the final 20 minutes and the film desperately attempts to save its 12a rating by becoming a visual mess. And though the CG is atrocious (to put it another way, I have no idea how this film cost $85 million to make), the cinematography is pretty good, peaking with an early mindscape sequence involving infinite mirrors.
There’s an OK movie buried somewhere inside Divergent. Not a good one, the crevice of plot holes and inconsistencies in the film’s universe render that near impossible, but one that I’d be OK with recommending if you like this kind of genre. Unfortunately, the film we have is both bloated and anaemic; way too long and lacking in content to sustain that run-time. It moves at a pace that’s outclassed by glaciers, features characters with the depth, interest and likability of a sachet of ketchup and it’s so frakkin’ joyless. There’s an aura of extreme self-seriousness surrounding the film that keeps it from being any fun (I count precisely two gags in the whole film and they both involve a subversion of the “you don’t have what it takes to shoot me” routine) and that makes the act of making it through Divergent feel like an arduous test of endurance. A slog in all senses of the word.
Maybe the book is better. I doubt it but, more importantly, I shouldn’t have to find that out. My enjoyment of a film should not be predicated on my residual love for the source material. It should stand up in its right and be enjoyable on its own terms; a different way to experience the story, not a substitute for it. That’s why it’s an adaptation, that’s how these things are supposed to work. And Divergent has precious little going for it to make it worth your time if you aren’t familiar with the books and just dying to see your favourite characters physically embodied and up on the big screen. I’ll see you all back here in 12 months’ time to do this dance again.
Callum Petch looked into your eyes and his world came tumbling down. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!