Distracted from Distraction by Divergent

It’s a bit ironic that Divergent tries to emphasize the importance of nonconformity while doing so little to set itself apart from the flood of dystopian films hitting theaters recently.  In light of Divergent’s considerable success at the box office, this route likely pleased the studio executives, but sadly the result fails to do much more than halfheartedly rehash themes of oppression and individuality in a post-apocalyptic world.

Following a horrific war that wiped out most of humanity, a group of survivors settled in the dilapidated remains of Chicago, where Tris, played by Shailene Woodley, now lives.  Here, the survivors divided themselves and all necessary jobs among five factions roughly similar to stereotypical high school cliques.  Children remain in their parents’ faction until they reach young adulthood and then join the group of their choice with guidance from a sophisticated virtual test.

Tris’s family belongs to the selfless Abnegation faction, but Tris has never felt a strong sense of belonging here and hopes for a more fitting recommendation from her test.  When test day arrives, however, Tris’s results are somehow inconclusive.  Before being rushed away, Tris learns that she is an extremely rare Divergent and is warned to tell no one.  Perplexed, Tris decides to join the Dauntless faction, who serve as a sort of police force and are known for bravery, and leaves her family behind.

Thus begins Tris’s journey to find her way in the world as she struggles to prove herself in the intimidating, often violent culture of Dauntless.  As this journey drags on, however, we begin to lose track of the intended destination. What starts as a story that promises to take an interesting look at the development of Tris’s personal identity is quickly pulled in several directions at once.   By the end Divergent tries to take off but lands as little more than hasty, uninspiring finger-wagging at murdering innocents.

This problem wouldn’t be so grave if director Neil Burger had provided spectacular visuals or impressive action scenes, but alas. It’s also uncomfortable as a viewer to constantly intrude on the painfully awkward interactions between Woodley’s Tris and her love interest Four, played by Theo James, making the token romance feel even more out of place than it already is.  Even the soundtrack comes up short. With an unusually high proportion of electronic music and distinct contributions from Ellie Goulding, Burger often resorts to a hyper-excited vibe ill-suited for the sort of serious reflection we might reasonably expect to define such a bleak dystopian world.  Cued by the music and other elements, the film’s mood changes frequently, as if Burger couldn’t decide on a single appropriate direction. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how I was expected to feel.  In the end, I settled on bewildered.

Personally (and perhaps this is the result of too many economics classes), I had a hard time getting over the absurdity of constructing a society from five groups based on personality, with no one allowed to switch after their initial choice.  This system threatens to take issues of restricted labor mobility to remarkable extremes, even as the film makes no effort at all to acknowledge or address such problems.  There is also the odd implication that bravery, selflessness, honesty, kindness, and intelligence tend to be mutually exclusive, except in extremely rare cases—exceptions that actually reinforce the film’s tiresome stereotypes and pessimistic worldview.

In Divergent neither the surface nor the substance leaves much of a lasting impression, but for whatever reason, it has proven fairly popular among audiences.  With three big budget sequels in the works, the series isn’t going away soon.  Maybe this is one of those times when, if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them so that you have something in common to talk about.  But feel free to play it in the background while you’re folding laundry or playing cards.  There’s not much to miss.

Grade C+   Not the worst way to spend your time.