Premise: (from IMDB) In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.
About: The next attempt at a YA novel franchise debuted this weekend to about 55 million dollars. It wasn’t quite Hunger Games numbers, but it’s probably enough to ensure a full trilogy. Divergent was adapted by Evan Daugherty, who broke out a few years back with a screenplay contest win that eventually led to a 7 figure sale and ended with the hit film, Snow White and the Huntsman. Possibly because Kristin Stewart starred in that film, the godmother of the female-driven YA franchise, the Divergent folk brought Daugherty in to script another success story. Coming in to give the script some female sensibility was Vanessa Taylor, who wrote the Meryl Streep film, Hope Springs.
Writer: Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor (based on the novel by Veronica Roth)
Details: 139 minutes!
When you invest in a franchise these days, you don’t have any choice but to cram it down the world’s throat. So competitive has this business become, that it’s better to blanket the world with advertisements and make them HATE your movie, than display a respectful number of billboards and remind everyone that you exist. Hate is irrelevant. What’s important is that they KNOW.
Divergent is the latest film to get the “blanket your eyeballs” marketing treatment. And it’s unfortunate. Cause I’m one of these people who’s been wishing for the death of the female-driven YA novel franchise. I shall not fib. I came to Divergent ready to split the movie in two and send the halves back to the literary world, where they would remain hidden inside the minds of whoever picked them up. But that didn’t happen. My reaction is more…divergent than expected.
The “Divergent for Dummies” plot breakdown goes something like this. It’s Chicago at some point in the future, after war has decimated the world. In order to make sure this doesn’t happen again, the good people of Chi-Town have divided their population into five factions. These factions have names, but they’re way too complicated for the sake of this review. So we’ll just call them the Borings, the Smarties, the Exercisers, and two others that are irrelevant to the plot.
Tris is our hero. She’s part of the Borings, the unofficial ruling group of the city. Her life is dedicated to doing boring things like helping others. But her Choosing Moment is coming up, where she chooses the faction she’ll join for the rest of her life. Why someone is born into a faction but has to choose a faction is beyond me. But that’s this world for ya.
Luckily, it gets more complicated. Before you choose, you get tested to find out which faction you’re a part of. After you find out, you’re supposed to choose that faction. But you don’t have to. You can still choose any faction you want. Which begs the question – why the hell do they need this test in the first place?
It probably has something to do with what happens during Tris’s test. Tris isn’t picked for ANY of the factions. She’s a DIVERGENT! Which is a huge no-no in this society because Divergents can’t be controlled. Luckily, the tester decides to keep this a secret. So Tris is safe. For now at least.
I say “for now” because Evil Kate Winslet, a part of the Smarties Faction, is set on rooting out all the Divergents and killing them. To think, it was only a few years ago she was flying with Jack on the front of the Titanic.
In a surprise move, Tris joins the Exercisers on Choosing Day, who are known for NEVER WALKING. The Exercisers are the chosen defenders of the city, which means Tris has decided to train and become a soldier.
Towards the end of her training, Tris learns of a plan by the Smarties to take over the city, killing the only faction standing in their way, the Borings. The worst part? The Smarties are going to use mind-control on the Exercisers to do their dirty work. The irony! Tris’s current faction is going to kill her old faction! Ah but remember, Tris is immune to mind-control. She’s a Divergent. The question is, is that enough to thwart this plan and save the city?
If you should ever stumble into a showing of Divergent, you may feel like you’re in an alternate dimension. Soon after you sit down, you’ll be bombarded with a dozen scenes of the Exerciser Faction running around, smiling, high-fiving, jumping, cheering, all to an annoyingly catchy tribal beat. It’s one of the weirder things you’ll ever experience in a theater.
But here’s why Divergent survives the nuclear bomb that sent it to its dystopian reality in the first place. This story is almost exclusively focused on character development, and it does a pretty good job of it. Tris is confused about her place in the world, not unlike all of us after our institutionalized years, and therefore must find herself. She joins a faction where she’s the underdog, and that choice is the main reason why this script works.
Like I’ve told you guys in the past, an underdog character goes a long way. And Tris is so far down this ladder (everyone tells her she’s toast – she’ll never make it through the training) that you can’t help but root for her. I loved how they made the odds so impossible (always make your odds impossible!) that you’re never sure if she’s going to succeed or not.
Now because this movie was about character development, much of it is Tris being challenged, having to overcome her fears and her flaws. The problem was, they got a little carried away with that. I wasn’t counting, but 70-80 minutes of Divergent is dedicated to training. I kept waiting for a more concrete story goal to emerge (a danger outside the city they would have to battle perhaps?). But that never came. So I wondered where this was all going.
When I realized this wasn’t The Hunger Games, with its big fancy goal of the Games at the end, but about a secret uprising, I found myself fascinated by the choice. Because it’s the much more dangerous choice of the two. With The Hunger Games, your audience is always looking forward to that juicy goal of trying to win the games.
Divergent’s plot is happening underneath the surface, not unlike The Shawshank Redemption, where the main plot is being kept from the audience. The reason that’s a dangerous move is because it’s easier for the audience to lose interest. If they can’t see the endgame, what’s motivating them to stay interested? Audiences usually need that clear finale (those “Hunger Games” if you will) to stay committed. Think about it. If I told you we were going to your favorite restaurant at the end of the day, your whole day would be great. You’d be so excited for later. If there was no restaurant visit, however, your day would feel kind of boring. There’d be nothing special about it.
This finally helped me realize why the trailers felt so confusing – why every time I saw them I didn’t know what the movie was about. They couldn’t reveal what the movie was about because the whole plot is the third-act twist! It’s the secret uprising plot that was invisible for 2 hours.
Did this work? Sort of. The twist itself was kind of cheesy. We have serum-centric mind control going on, and whenever you throw in serum-centric mind control, I’m sorry, but it’s going to be cheesy. The thing was, you liked Tris so much, you wanted to see her win. You wanted to see her take down Evil Kate Winslet.
I give it to the Divergent writers for keeping the plot focused, despite its long run time and all the weird things they had to include from the novel. The training was long, but they constantly reminded us how important it was. That’s what you have to remember when it comes to adaptations. The writers have to find ways to make things work even though they know they don’t work. If you’re lucky, someone will be paying you to do that some day.
I mean why the hell does this Exerciser Faction never walk? Why are they always cheering? And the biggest question of all – WHY THE HELL DOES THE TRAIN IN CHICAGO NEVER STOP??? There’s no way to get on the train in this movie unless you run and jump on it.
You’d think that one of the many engineers in the city would figure out a way to solve this problem (I hear brakes still work in the future). It was weird stuff like this that gave Divergent a schizophrenic feel. But Daugherty and Taylor found a way to include just enough of it to sell the world, but not so much that we rolled our eyes (well, okay, I rolled my eyes a couple of times).
Did Divergent benefit from extremely low expectations? Yes. Am I recommending you all go out and see it? No. But if you’re walking around on a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do and you can get a matinee ticket, you may find Divergent not nearly as bad as you’d expect it to be.
[ ] what the hell did I just see?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the price of a matinee ticket
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There should always be a sense of doubt that your main character will succeed. If there isn’t, why would we care? There would be nothing to worry about.