Divergent, the movie based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling book series, has hit. We’ve gone to see it. Here’s a review of a nigh-plotless movie that has a number of flaws – mainly the casting and characterization of the stars – but still manages to entertain.
«Oooh, look at me, I am a strong female character, have a shot of my highlight boobs while I shove my butt into the camera.» That was probably the first joke a member of the Uncanny Book-Club made even before the movie based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling book Divergent had started. Many a joke followed. And then the movie finally started being screened earlier this week. Shailene Woodley – the world’s prime actress for female leads in Young Adult movies – stars as Beatrice Tris Prior who just isn’t like all the others.
Because Tris lives in a postapocalyptic Chicago where society has been reorganized into factions based on their emotional or characteristic aptitude. There are
- The Dauntless, who are fearless and reckless.
- The Abgnegation are subservient and meek.
- The Amity are helpful and worker bees.
- The Erudite are inquisitive and intelligent.
- The Candor are honest and not exactly gifted with great social skills.
And then, there are the mystical sixth people in Chicago: The Divergent. The Divergent are people who can fit perfectly into more than one or even all of these factions. And they’re a danger to the system.
At this point, we’ve reached the point where the entire story falls apart. Because in Veronica Roth’s story, she implies that all Amity are dumb as bricks, because they can’t be intelligent. The Candor are already intelligent. None of the Candor can be brave, because that’s clearly Dauntless territory. Nobody on this planet can believe this premise when looking at it for more than three seconds. Look at yourself. Have you ever been intelligent and honest at the same time? Ever stood up for the truth, even though you were unpopular for it? Yeah, there you go, Roth’s premise is bollocks.
Still, she sold a lot of books. And they’re not half bad, actually. Mainly because they dare to go just that bit further than the others of the ever-present «Girl in Post-Apocalypse»-genre and she skips the seemingly obligatory love-triangle. Because, you see, Divergent is not a nice book. Tris is not a pretty person. She is constantly described as having an ugly nose. She’s too thin for her own good and once she bulks up at Dauntless headquarters, she pretty much loses all female features. She also gets scars and tattoos. She doesn’t have «curves in all the right places», she’s not an ugly duckling waiting to become a beautiful swan. She’s Tris Prior. End of story. This is what made the character awesome, which later gets completely negated by some massive fits of stupidity, but that’ll have to wait for the sequel. What Tris is, though, and there’s no denying that is determined and independent. She does things on her own and she gets them done. She doesn’t need all that much help, really, other than support on missions that require more than one person.
In the movie that is now in cinema, ugly, scarred and wiry Tris is played by Shailene Woodley.
She’s a pretty person. No two ways around it. Slightly round face, big eyes, acting talent. Shailene Woodley is pretty cool, all in all, and she does a good job with the little story that actually happens in the first book and the movie. But seeing as Veronica Roth made a conscious point of repeatedly describing her Tris as what the politically correct consider to be «not conventionally pretty», Shailene Woodley does not look the part. Long flowing hair all throughout, round face and pretty nose and all.
I suppose you could chalk this up to Hollywood’s tendency to make everyone pretty and then having them be ugly character by just calling them ugly, but it’s a bit of a let-down. Because it’s such a strong point of the book, which doesn’t actually make all that much sense or many more points.
The Inconsistent Characters and Eric
That doesn’t mean that Shailene Woodley is doing a bad job. In fact, she’s a pretty good actress. Only that whoever gave her instructions on how to play, completely misunderstood the character. In every other scene, Shailene Woodley’s Tris has tears in her eyes. She frequently needs help to get her basic Dauntless things done such as jumping onto a moving train, but then is badass at other times such as when she’s being shot. She can’t fight worth a damn and needs saving every other time she engages in physical conflict, some of the times by the obligatory love interest who comes by the name of Four and is just as inconsistently portrayed as Shailene Woodley’s Tris.
Granted, in the book, Four is a bit of a non-character. He’s the accessory to Tris’ awesomeness. He’s her boyfriend and accomplice in whatever nonsensical idiocy Tris has come up with now. He’s not being kept in the loop of what his girlfriend has planned at all. He actually would be an extraspecial snowflake – destined for Dauntless Leadership but reluctant to embrace his destiny –, like many of the stars of the «Girl in the Post-Apocalypse»-genre, but screw that, we have normal, daft Tris Prior. In the movie, he’s a pretty badass character. Look at the poster, where he’s crouching in front of our main star, all menacing and badass. That’s him in the movie. He comes to her rescue every now and then, drops important hints that she then uses to succeed. In the movie, Four is the driving force behind Tris’ success at times and then someone who stands by idly while certain things happen.
By far the most consistent character as well as the most impressive one is Dauntless Leader Eric, played by Jai Courtney. He is probably what Veronica Roth had in mind when coming up with the Dauntless. He’s a big guy, muscular, commands respect and has a stroke of evil genius to him. Courtney is also the only main character who embraces the fact that the Dauntless are not pretty people. His hairdo sucks, his piercings don’t make him pretty, he’s muscular and has tattoos in places where tattoos look really weird. And he’s consistently the bad guy in the movie. He comes up with new rules, intent on making people miserable, on the fly. He is never nice and he’s got this deep gravelly voice that makes him a good villain.
The Inexistant Plot Full of Holes
On to the plot. Well, there is very little of it. As we remember from the book, the central plot revolves around a powerplay by the Erudite to get control over the city. To achieve that, they first sow distrust, so that the rulers of the city are suddenly not beyond reproach. Then they use some sort of neural transmitters that makes all those injected with it into mindless drones. The mindless ones are to be the best-armed, best-trained and strongest of Chicago: The Dauntless.
The problem is that the plot in the movie doesn’t show up until the third act. Until then, it’s all Dauntless training and character moments. Not development as much as vignettes illustrating the characters of this story. Sure, Janine Matthews played by Kate Winslet shows up at Dauntless headquarters and stuff, but unless you know what you’re looking out for, you’re basically not getting any story.
One scene we missed the most was part of the one where Tris rides down zip-line strapped into a harness at breakneck speed. In the book, she gets caught by her fellow Dauntless, showing that she is now part of the pack, part of the family of brave warriors. Accepted and at home. In the movie, she has to pull a brake on her own or else she slams into a brightly lit metal plate at high speeds. The question here is: Who builds a zip-line like that? Also, how does one build a zip-line like this?
So we have inconsistent characters and zero plot development in addition to miscast and misdirected people in the film. Does this make Divergent a bad movie? No. «Wait… what», I hear you ask? Well, here’s the thing, the movie’s not boring. It’s over two hours long and when we were done with watching it, it didn’t feel like that much time had passed. There was a brief dull moment that happened between the end of the character vignettes and the beginning of the plot proper at around the beginning of the third act, but other than that, there’s always something interesting to look at.
The Interesting Things to Look at
The first things we noticed were that there was a lot of thought that went into the design of the world. Far more than Veronica Roth even let on in her books. During the aerial and panorama shots of the ruined Chicago, where people still live, we notice a number of tiny things that make this movie just so much better. There are jet-engine-like things built onto the walls of skyscrapers and houses that constantly rotate. You know what these things do? They generate the electricity that the people of the factions use. Some cars run on gasoline, mostly the big trucks and agricultural vehicles, but Jeanine’s private limousine makes an electrical hiss sound when it’s being driven. Because where would you get gas when there’s no import or export? So you rely on the electricity generated by the turbines one the side of the building.
It’s also interesting to look at what’s going on in the background. During the choosing ceremony, the initiates have to pick a faction by slicing their hand open and then letting a drop of blood fall into a bowl that contains a characteristic substance for each faction. The Dauntless, for example, have hot coal in their bowl to symbolize the tempers they have. The order in which the initiates are called on are apparently in reverse alphabetical order. So Prior comma Beatrice comes right after Prior comma Caleb, her brother. He picks up a clean knife, slices his hand, leaves a bit of blood on the blade, chooses Erudite and goes to join his new faction. Tris steps up and then goes on to pick up a clean blade, slice, Dauntless, she goes off. And what do we see in the background? A guy shuffling up to the choosing altar thing who cleans the knife.
The makers of the movie have come up with their own fighting style to show that the Dauntless aren’t just mindless brawlers. Okay, I will admit that the stance that we see Tris and the other initiates assume when fighting begin seems to be somewhat inefficient and much too cramped to be of any real use, but still, it’s a part of the unique look.
Nigel Palmer, tattoo artist extraordinaire, was in charge of the tattoo design, even though he has no idea how the things are supposed to work in the movie. The getting of a tattoo goes like so: You get a patch of sorts on your skin, then you talk with your tattoo artist for three sentences and that’s it. But the designs are very intricate and consistent – apart from Tris’ raven tattoos. They’re inspired by 1920s-designs and take into account how the body moves and functions.
These are just some of the excellent ideas that went past the plot in this movie. And this really top-notch production design makes us look past the nigh-inexistent plot, the miscasting of pretty much all the main characters, the bland heroine that can’t get anything done on her own and the fact that virtually nothing happens until the third act.
So if you’ve read the book and want to see what the world of Divergent can look like, then this is your movie. If you’re after engaging coming-of-age-stuff, then you might be better off with pretty much every other movie of this genre there is.
In closing, I leave you with this. The trailer. Enjoy.