Ever since Katniss sparked a revolution and Bella boned a vampire, American moviegoers have been eagerly anticipating the next great female action hero. Many of us thought we’d find her in Divergent, Veronica Roth’s bestselling novel recently made into a how-is-this-selling two hour film. We were wrong. On the surface, Divergent is your standard drunken action fare: harmless fun, followed by regret and diarrhea. Deep underneath this arts camp screenplay, however, is a whiney and petulant family values agenda. And what bothers me the most about Divergent – a movie so bad it aspires to be formulaic – isn’t its hackneyed dialogue or the FIVE MINUTE SEQUENCE WHERE THEY GANGBANG A CHILD. It’s that the film, much like the teen culture it’s trying to criticize, tries to be something its not. Smart. Meaningful. Different (Barf). At its heart, Divergent is your standard male action hero movie rebranded as a (highly profitable) woman warrior film. It’s duplicitous and sloppy, and while critics contend that the movie is “adventurous and fun” so is huffing Clorox wipes – why not do that? (It’s cheaper!)
Divergent takes place in a futuristic post-apocalyptic Chicago, where deep dish is a distant dream and everyone shops at Land’s End. It’s a dark dark world, but one that has been neatly organized into factions/communities that conveniently resemble high school cliques (ding ding: message alert!). Tris (Shailene Woodley) is born into Abnegation, a joyless community of government officials who wear all grey and probably juice a lot. When she turns sixteen, however, Tris takes a test to determine what community she belongs to, only to find out she doesn’t belong anywhere – she’s dIvErGEnT. However, Tris can’t tell anyone about her result because her society punishes nonconformists. And as a straight, white, stunning female born into a loving, forever-supportive nuclear family, booooooy does this girl step out of the box. At her society’s annual sorting ceremony, Tris decides to leave “Abnegation” for “Dauntless” – a community of warriors who theoretically fight distant enemies but probably just listen to Korn and commit sex crimes.
In case you’re worried that Tris might become one of those unconventional female heroes/spinster witches who forgoes love for adventure – fear not. Twenty minutes in the film, Tris meets Four (Theo James), a powerful Dauntless trainer with a Nazi Youth sex appeal. It’s love at first sight, and as the movie progresses, Four saves Tris time after time. While training with Dauntless, Four teaches Tris how to both win a fight and destroy an enemy. In fact, if you examine the story closely (which I definitely did. From the front row. I wasn’t about to get to this bullshit movie early), you start to realize that Four, not Tris, is the real hero here. Sure, Tris encourages Four to overcome his fear of heights (awww) and get in touch with his abusive childhood (what?). But while Tris saves Four, Four saves civilization. It’s a classic, boring division of labor and – worst of all – the two characters don’t even have sex (Tris wants to “take it slow,” but I’m pretty sure Four is a whore). What a waste.
Sensing the audience’s disinterest, director Neil Burger throws in an attempted gangbang and an evil female antagonist named… get ready for it… Jeanine. Jeanine (played by the why-did-you-do-this but ugh-you-look-great-in-a-business-suit Kate Winslet) is head of “Erudite,” the faction of intellectuals who want to destroy Abnegation and take over the government. She’s smart and she’s single, but it’s Tris and her Aryan beefcake boyfriend who – in a feat of incredible logical defiance – get classified as “divergents.” Divergent advertises itself as a movie that celebrates individuality and self-expression, a snoozy premise to begin with. Interestingly, the movie chooses to celebrate non-conformity by – whoops-a-daisy! – killing all the non-conformists. Accidents happen, but Divergent cost $85 million to make – did no one notice the crap on the floor?
Still, no movie is all bad, although frankly I feel forced to say that (guess I’m not a dIvERgeNT). Both Woodley and James do their best in their respective constrictive roles, and Winslet absolutely shines as a withholding female mother figure. There’s also a wonderful sequence where Tris’ mom, played by Ashley Judd, forsakes a shopping spree for a killing spree and god it is just incredible to watch. And despite all the plot sinkholes, Divergent does generate sincere momentum. Not all action movies can do that, so I give screenwriters Daugherty and Taylor real points for sustaining some real suspense and narrative energy. And then I take half of the points away, because who really cares about “narrative energy” and ugh how did that make it to my sentence.
Divergent has been frequently compared to The Hunger Games, and the comparison, while unbalanced, isn’t totally unfair. Both movies feature young female heroines who live in not-too-distant dystopian futures. But Hunger Games maintains an emotional honesty that Divergent can’t even fake. Katniss Everdeen comes from a family that is “broken,” but not for resale; she is blunt, difficult, and almost never funny. It’s a fantasy like any other (sometimes Katniss feels too resilient to be real), but it touches Planet Reality a few more times than Divergent, which kicks it around like a hacky sack at a DMB Concert. Both films are topically about female warriors, but Divergent’s warrior is actually just a warrior-lite. Her mission: to team up with an undiagnosed sociopath and save civilization from . . . public policy? Shoulder pads? I don’t know. Divergent is a (Upchuck alert!) high kicks, “Go Girl!” movie that dares its audience to be different. You just wish the filmmakers had listened to their own stolen advice.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org. Other FilmDrunk reviews are here.