Tag Archives: Shailene Woodley

Insurgent

A step-up from Divergent, if nothing else, Insurgent still isn’t compelling or really any good.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

51587.cr2I can remember nothing about Divergent.  I remember that it was terrible and boring, and that a character in it voluntarily calls himself “Four” which makes any scene in which somebody calls out to him resemble that of an overly emotional balloted deli counter, but I don’t remember any specifics about the film.  I couldn’t tell you any character names besides Tris and Four – and, look, I’m sorry, I really did try taking his name seriously this time, but I just can’t, I can’t – I couldn’t tell you any plot points, I couldn’t tell you any personality traits of any of the characters, I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in the finale that, direct quote from my review, “is practically the film ticking off the last free spots on its [genre] bingo card in quick succession”.  Nothing.

That, I think, might be the biggest problem with Divergent.  It’s a bad boring movie, but it is so utterly blandly forgettable that I cannot remember a single damn thing about it besides its bizarrely strong cast and the feeling of having had my time wasted.  It didn’t even have the decency to be interestingly or entertainingly bad, with the exception of the ridiculous and mostly inexplicable nature of the Faction system that its world is based around, because it was too busy blandly cribbing from every single successful, and even some of the non-successful, Young Adult franchise ever in the hopes that money will magically fall from the sky and into the studio and filmmakers’ laps.  Unfortunately for all, it did (sorta) and so now here’s Insurgent, soon to be followed by Allegiant, Parts 1 & 2 because, hey, why not also steal the “unnecessarily split your last book into two separate films for twice the cash money” part too, eh?

Actually, I’m being unnecessarily mean.  If nothing else, Insurgent is a far better movie than Divergent ever was.  Where that movie plodded and dragged onwards with no end in sight, Insurgent moves with some semblance of a pace and clearly builds to a logical end game that doesn’t feel like it takes multiple goddamn days to reach.  The scope expands – which stretches the already thin narrative credibility to beyond breaking point – which managed to keep me somewhat engaged, even whilst the film mostly just loops back on itself constantly, and with the exceptions of Kate Winslet – who was already checked out in the first film and who is acted off the screen by Ansel Elgort in a sentence I never thought I would ever type – and Shailene Woodley – whose patience for this series visibly drains the further into the film we get – the cast is still trying their damndest to make the crap they’re given work.

I mean, it’s still not a good film, I cannot make that more abundantly clear, but it’s not offensively boring, this time.  You know when you’re watching something on TV and you’re not bored but you’re also not completely engaged?  Like, you don’t connect emotionally in the slightest with what’s going on and you’re really not bothered about what happens, but you also have absolutely no urge to change the channel or check your phone excessively or what have you?  That’s the level that Insurgent is operating on, which is at least a step up from Divergent’s mind-numbing boringness, even though it’s got so little going on and is spread so narratively thin that it’s basically the final third of Divergent that was withheld because DOLLA DOLLA BILLS, Y’ALL!!

The big problem, the thing that continues to kill this series the further along it goes because it becomes more and more apparent, with its refusal to even attempt fixing it feeling even more like a deliberate act of pure laziness, is that Insurgent still has no characters.  None of its cast have any definable personalities, nobody goes on any real arc, and most beings (which is the best way that I can describe these lumps of mould) have no consistency at all.  Characters hot-foot between allegiances as the plot demands with no adequate explanation, many characters are excessively angsty for no particular reason, and the finale of the film occurs as if Tris is being told off-camera in-universe that she needs to do something real stupid because otherwise the film won’t have an ending.

It’s all best encompassed by Tris herself, our nominal protagonist, who is less a character and more a blank slate who has a whole bunch of emotional problems that the story’s target audience might have thrown onto her.  Unlike, say, Katniss Everdeen, Tris’ near-total lack of agency, with the exception of maybe two instances late on in the film, has no narrative or thematic reason other than lazy-ass storytelling, that only serves to call attention to the fact that I have no idea what she wants or who she is as a person outside of the plot pushing her forward.  I have spent two films and nearly 4 and a half hours in her company and I still have absolutely no idea what makes her tick or what makes her so special – the film’s constant repetition of “She is the one!  The special one!” feels more and more like attempted indoctrination the further and further on it goes.

She is a cipher, nothing more.  This is especially problematic as the final third of the film, which is where Insurgent’s big and incredibly cheap-looking CG action sequences reside, is all about her working through her emotional baggage, her insecurities and fears.  Not one moment of it resonates, though, because it’s all artificial, conflict thrown onto a character without any true grounding through prior character work or actions.  Tris has survivor’s guilt from the last film but it only manifests when the specific sequence of film calls for it, compared to Katniss’ survivor’s guilt which informs her entire character, ditto her desire to not be Divergent and “special” which literally only comes up in one extremely ham-fisted sequence during the film’s first climax before being unceremoniously punted off-screen.

When a character does manage to make an impression, it’s either down to themselves being the equivalent of Saturday morning cartoon villains – Miles Teller, who is better than Hollywood, has a noticeable blast indulging his inner-Draco Malfoy, whilst Sam Worthington Jai Courtney is well-cast as an entertainingly smug prick that the film shuffles off Stage Left way too early – or the actors and actresses just happening to be actors and actresses who have inexplicably decided that this is where they want to pick up their paycheques for a year or two – notable newcomers this time are Daniel Dae Kim as the leader of Candour, Naomi Watts as the leader of the Factionless and also Four’s long-thought dead mother (because OF COURSE), and Octavia Spencer who is the leader of Amity and is third-billed despite being on-screen for about 428 seconds max.  Otherwise, it’s just people-shaped husks doing stuff that’s apparently important but that I never once truly cared about.

Incidentally, if you’re coming to Insurgent in search of more of that sweet insipid stupidity that powered Divergent, then you will get more than your money’s worth by the finale.  It’s the kind of finale that purports to explain things, specifically why The City is ran in the idiotic faction system and why the Divergents are such a big deal, but doesn’t actually explain anything, instead offering the illusion that answers and explanations are being given whilst actually skirting around everything in favour of a separate reveal that is unbelievably stupid.

It also poses the exact opposite problem of Divergent’s ending: where that left more loose ends than a police corruption investigation headed by a corrupt cop, this one leaves no loose ends.  This is An Ending, in the most definite sense one can manage, where everything is tied up and there is really nothing else to do.  The final shot of the film even does what should have been done in the finale of the first film, for crying out loud!  Like, I do not know where Allegiant could go for barely 2 minutes, let alone two 2 hour films!  I also can’t really say I’m excited by this prospect either cos, well, I really don’t care about any of these non-entities masquerading as characters that I’m supposedly supposed to give a crap about.  So, all we’re really going to be doing is coming back to line Summit Entertainment’s pockets with even more cashola.

Again, I don’t strongly dislike Insurgent.  It’s OK.  In its best moments, I could sit and pretend like I was watching a better Young Adult adaptation or sci-fi film – Teller’s Malfoy impression calling to mind Harry Potter, Tris’ occasional extremely unconvincing (can we launch a Kickstarter to rescue a genuinely miserable-looking Shailene Woodley from this franchise, please) rage against the machine reminding me that Mockingjay, Part 2 is out in just 8 too-long months, the simulations being a bargain-basement Matrix – than this Frankenstein’s Monster of a series, and shaving off 20 minutes and having a clear end goal does wonders for the film’s pacing.  However, the plotting is still a mess, the world is still stupid, and there are still no characters, which makes being emotionally invested in anything that goes on a completely fruitless endeavour.

It’s a baby step forward and nothing more, is what I’m getting at.  Making the presentation less drearily dull without actually fixing the underlying problems that caused that symptom.  The equivalent of putting a child’s Band-Aid over a gaping shotgun wound.  The Divergent Series still has given no adequate reason as to why it should exist, other than to give some studio execs, a seemingly creatively-bankrupt novelist, and otherwise talented actors a nice large steady paycheque for four-or-so years, and Insurgent gives no evidence of that changing any time soon.

But, hey, I wasn’t bored stiff this time.  That’s progress, I guess?

Callum Petch will kiss the ground where you kneel.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Advertisements

The Fault In Our Stars

fault-in-our-stars-posterIt may follow a few too many of the tragedy-softening conventions it promises to subvert, but The Fault In Our Stars still packs one hell of an emotional gut-punch.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

I was dreading this one, folks.  Not in the ways that most of its target audience were likely dreading it (the marketing certainly wanted me to be dreading it in that way, in any case), but because it set off way too many alarm bells.  I am extremely resistant to films that blatantly try to push my emotions in certain directions because I detest such things; if a film wants me to spring a leak in the tear department, it should actually work for it instead of just throwing on a whole bunch of elements that will become tragic later on, sugercoat it by playing a Peter Gabriel song, in the words of the film itself, and shouting “YOU WILL CRY OR YOU ARE A HEARTLESS MONSTER” at me.  The Fault In Our Stars looked like that kind of movie.  “It’s a romance between a teenage girl who is dying of cancer and a young man whose cancer is in remission!  START THE COUNTDOWN CLOCK TO THE TEARS!”  And really not helping the film’s case was the trailer, the one that played before every gorram film for the past two months and made it look exactly like the sickeningly sweet and manipulative trash piece I’d pegged it for from that abysmal tagline (“One Sick Love Story”).

So I was disarmed by the film I ended up sitting through.  I mean, yeah, it’s still syrupy and calculated to break your heart in two in the messiest and most painful fashion imaginable, but The Fault In Our Stars wasn’t content to call it a day there.  Real effort has been put in making the romance something to genuinely invest in and it sometimes has a genuine edge that breaks through the schmaltz to inject a string of black comedy or subversiveness that makes all of the characters involved feel like people rather than ciphers or vessels for future tragedy.  Its sharpest edges have clearly been sanded down for Hollywood (something I can tell even though I have not read the book), but the personality and depth are prevalent enough to make the result more than just a tear factory.  Although it is utterly heart-breaking.  Utterly.

The story powering the factory centres around Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a sixteen-year-old living with terminal thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs.  Her life is a simple yet sad one: she watches reality TV, she constantly reads and re-reads her favourite novel “An Imperial Affliction” and she attends cancer support groups because her mother (supposedly mistakenly, if we believe Hazel) thinks she’s depressed.  It is at one of these meetings that she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Egort), an eighteen year-old whose cancer is currently in remission, although not before costing him his right leg, and is a charming individual who almost immediately falls in love with Hazel.  His devil-may-care and laidback attitude prove to be what Hazel needs and the two begin bonding, although Hazel tries to keep her distance as she’s worried that she’ll destroy him emotionally when the cancer finally catches up to her.  You can probably tell where this is all heading.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that this time.  The opening 40 or so minutes, especially, the film establishes its leads as actual people rather than walking pity parades/ticking time-bombs.  An early visit to the cancer support group, for example, ends up very blackly funny by reframing the experience as wholly patronising to those it purports to help.  Both of our leads, as well as secondary character Isaac (played by Nat Wolff from The Naked Brothers Band in case you ever wanted a walking case study on how starring in a Nickelodeon sitcom at a young age needn’t always lead to premature career suicide) whose cancer is about to claim the second of his two eyes, are just as comfortable in cracking wise about their illnesses as they are making melodramatic speeches about its effects.  And things in their relationship move slowly enough to give time for their bond to feel meaningful; these are two characters who fall in mutual love because they’re people who feel connected with one another, whose lives are enhanced by knowing one another, rather than it being predicated on one another’s ability to speak like their every line is a rejected piece of Shakespeare prose.  I mean, that last part is still sometimes the case in the film’s dialogue, but it rarely feels clunky.  Hell, at points it seems natural, the result of two teenagers forced to grow up too fast as they deal with their mortality; of course they may end up wise beyond their years.

The fact that the film was able to make me think this way about Gus is especially noteworthy, seeing as his character doesn’t exactly have the best of starts.  He initially pressed far too many of my “this character is walking wish-fulfilment bait rather than an actual character worthy of my sympathy” buttons.  He was hunky, had a smirk/smile that made his face the most punch-able thing I had come across in a good long while, is relentless in his pursuit of Hazel (which, given recent tragic real-life events, is something we need to stop portraying as a good thing in works of fiction, I believe) and has an idiosyncratic tick that he justifies as “a metaphor” (he likes to put cigarettes in his mouth, a thing that could kill him, but not light them, therefore not giving the thing that could kill him the power to kill him, and yes I know that that’s not what a metaphor means).  Hell, even later on, after the film dials back and grounds him a bit more, he still gets dangerously close to the line between “actual human being” and “The World’s Most Perfect Man”.

It’s predominately a testament to Ansel Egort that Gus never ends up straying over that line, instead turning into somebody I begrudgingly liked, then really cared for and then shed buckets of tears over.  No matter how ridiculously nice and amazing and pretentious Gus gets, Egort is there to root out the humanity at the centre of the character and keep him rooted back down on planet Earth.  He also strikes up lightening chemistry with Shailene Woodley, who is also excellent.  Unlike her co-star, Woodley doesn’t have to keep her character from veering off the cliff of likability and can instead focus on being the emotional centre of the film, something she excels at due being totally engaged with the script at all times, even in the voiceover (which wasn’t exactly her strong suit beforehand, as anyone who saw Divergent will likely quite gladly tell you).  No matter how wordy the script may get, no matter how melodramatic a scene may end up, they play it all very naturally.  Nothing they do seems particularly forced, barring the odd exception (an egging sequence involves a line said by Gus that I am amazed everybody let slip through without calling out due to its pretentious stupidity), and that very grounded and realist performance work, regardless of the material, is what made connecting with these characters so easy.

Of course, that naturalist acting is at times at odds with the melodramatic yet squeaky-clean nature of the film itself.  Yes, despite stating its intent at the very top of the film to subvert all of the softening and sugar-coating that typically goes on in Hollywood tellings of tragedies, The Fault In Our Stars doesn’t do so nearly as much as it would like to/thinks it’s doing.  This isn’t too much of a problem, as it doesn’t sand down the stuff that matters too much, but it’s most noticeable when the film doesn’t quite know that enough is enough.  By that I mean there are times when the film indulges in romance and melodrama tropes which would be perfectly fine if it learnt to pull back every now and again, cos when it goes all in, it goes all in.  At one point, Hazel has an episode and the entire sequence is presented in slow-motion with all diegetic sound removed and replaced with a mournful violin and piano.  There’s a section during the finale that utilises flashbacks and then practically drowns the screen in soft focus, slow-panning and lens flares.  Most egregiously, there’s a bit where Hazel and Gus are visiting Anne Frank’s House and Hazel, whose lungs are very weak, has to climb some stairs.  The scene is backed by slightly worried music and shot in such a way that the point is adequately conveyed, but then the scene keeps working in “relevant” Anne Frank quotes and builds up to a big romantic gesture in a way that would be offensive if it weren’t so unintentionally silly.

These are the most notable instances of the film going overboard and, thankfully, they’re in the minority.  Most of the rest of the softening instead comes from the film’s score and soundtrack which are, you guessed it, dreamy reverb-drenched guitar and piano instrumentals, and soft indie-folk respectively.  They’re fine, most are really quite nice in isolation (I do have a soft spot for well executed versions of both of those), but they do betray the edge the film wants to have.  It’s why the appearance of the cantankerous author of Hazel and Gus’ favourite novel (Willem Dafoe who… well, Willem Dafoes the entire time he’s on screen) feels very weird, his love of Swedish hip-hop, and tonally mean-spirited and out-of-place instead of natural and intentional.  I feel like you could cut his appearance out of the film (keep the trip to Amsterdam but just cut him out) and not really lose a whole lot besides 10 minutes, which would actually help the film in all honesty (it’s a little bit too long).  Failing that, it could work but it just requires more commitment to that end of the cynicism-optimism spectrum than the film is willing to try, seeing as it believes that such a tone would necessitate the removal of a romantic candlelit dinner in a fancy restaurant.  The film nearly strays back in that direction by hinting repeatedly at Hazel’s dissatisfaction with how her parents handle looking after her (her mother is relentlessly positive and her father keeps his distance), but it doesn’t fully commit which gives off the impression that later drafts of this script severely cut down on that element.  Again, none of this is bad, because Egort and Woodley are excellent and the film manages to get a good balance between their natural performances and its commercial melodrama leanings, but the hints of an even better film are too tantalising and… and…

…ah, sod it.  I honestly can’t sit here and pick straws at what the film could have been or how it seems a bit too sanitised and safe and sugar-coated than initially planned.  Well, I mean, I can, but to do so is pointless in the face of this one fact: about 80 minutes in, The Fault In Our Stars finally pulls out its knife and emotionally shivs you in the gut, at which point the tears started and really didn’t let up in any considerable way for a good half hour afterwards.  It didn’t matter that I had called the turn from the first time that I saw the trailer, it didn’t matter that the film had not-in-the-least-bit subtly arranged the pieces from frame one to get this outcome, none of the other issues and hang-ups mattered a damn bit.  I was gone.  The dam protecting the waterworks had burst and nothing short of a friggin’ miracle or a re-appearance of Willem Dafoe Willem Dafoe-ing was going to stop them.  This is where Woodley and Egort really get to come into their own, as they transfer all of that hard work spent building up their relationship and funnel it into their new reality with its impending countdown clock of oblivion.  It never once feels fake, they never once strain for emotion, they never once give off the aura of “see me acting, I am all the acting”.  Hell, one or the other spends pretty much every scene afterwards shedding tears and it still works.  There’s even a bit at a gas station where the film once again indulges in its melodrama impulses and Egort lets loose, yet it still works and doesn’t break the mood or spell the film is under.

I spent a fair bit of the drive back from the cinema questioning how much of that emotional release was due to the film itself and how much was due to personal events in my life that I’m honestly not sure I’ll ever get over (my granddad passed away due to cancer late last year), and I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of it is down to the work the film puts in in those first 80 or so minutes.  A real attachment had been forged between myself and Gus & Hazel, despite the fact that the entire film had been very obviously constructed around the moment the tragedy button is pushed and the fact that they rarely talk like one would expect normal teenagers to.  To see their genuinely romantic relationship be slowly and devastatingly torn asunder during those last 40 minutes was genuinely upsetting and every time I thought I had cried all that I could cry, the film would once again throw up another poignant scene between the pair that would set me off all over again.  I may have been played like a goddamn fiddle and I do not care.

And, in the end, is that really a bad thing?  Movies are genetically engineered to force certain reactions out of us, after all.  Can one really get mad at a film for doing what it was supposed to do?  Can I really pick a film apart for hitting me with only about 80% of the power it teases potentially having because it doesn’t quite nail the pre-tragedy tone?  Can I really call a film out on its extremely manipulative romance and tragedy when I was eating both up hook line and sinker?  I may have had some personal investment in one of the film’s main themes, but that doesn’t explain away the exceptional work that leads Ansel Egort and Shailene Woodley put in and how I was wrapped up in them long before the countdown clock made its presence known.  I could put a hundred asterisks to my recommendation of this film, I could nit-pick or just plain pick until the sun went down and I could try to pithily offer a backhanded compliment with my recommendation.

But all of them distract from these two facts.  1] The Fault In Our Stars somehow just plain works.  2] I cried profusely for 30 of its final 40 minutes (which includes the end credits).  End of story, go see it.  Okay?

Callum Petch will stay here and never push things to the side.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Divergent

DIVERGENTDivergent is two hours and twenty three minutes.  You will feel every last second.

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)!