My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 86, Divergent

86 – Divergent:

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So is Divergent the new Twilight? I remember when the latter came out back in 2008. The first film was actually not that badly received. It had its detractors even then, but the backlash didn’t come until around the time the second film was out. By that time, many of the series’ flaws had become well-known; the shallowness of the romance, the general badness of the writing, the blatant wish-fulfilment in the heroine and several downright scary implications in the story. The fact that the films and books continued to make money just increased the hate towards it. Nowadays, Twilight is kind of like how Disco was for people of the 70s; hugely popular in its heyday, but most people these days will be ashamed to admit they were fans of it. So where does Divergent fit into all of this? I’ve heard comments like “I’d rather watch all five Twilight movies than sit through one minute of Divergent”, or “still better than Divergent” when describing one of the YA adaptations that bombed. Is it because the film is one of many adaptations spawned by the success of The Hunger Games (a problem The Maze Runner experiences too)? I admittedly didn’t see it when it first came out, precisely because it looked like such an imitator. And I only watched it later to see if it was really as bad as everyone said. The fact that it’s got a spot on a list of my favourite films should tell you what I thought. Let’s press on, shall we?

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We open showing the city of Chicago. We can tell this is part of some kind of bad future, because the skyscrapers aren’t in great condition and there’s a wall around the city. A narration says that a war destroyed most of the human race, and their founders built the wall to keep everyone safe. To keep the peace, the population is divided into five factions:

  • Erudite – they value knowledge and intelligence. They’re always doing some kind of research or experiments.
  • Amity – the kind pacifists who farm the land outside the city.
  • Candor – the honest and ordered groups who enforce the law.
  • Dauntless – the fearless soldiers who defend the city.
  • Abnegation – the selfless good Samaritans who govern the city.
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What’s left of it anyway.

There’s another group of people who don’t fit in anywhere called the Factionless; they’re pretty much outcasts. Our protagonist Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is part of Abnegation, but doesn’t quite fit in. This is in stark contrast to her brother Caleb who is a natural. I suppose this is the perfect time to mention that Caleb is played by Ansel Elgort, who next starred alongside Shailene Woodley in The Fault In Our Stars – as her boyfriend. Yes, indeed. Brother in this movie. Boyfriend in literally the next one after this. Should I also mention that he was asked by the girl herself whether it was more fun being her brother or boyfriend? He replied boyfriend.

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Gee, the Flowers In The Attic remake missed an opportunity there. Anyway, lest you think that these factions are absolute, the kids get to choose. Each year, the new generation of teens coming of age take a test to tell them what faction they’re best suited for. They get the opportunity to change or stay, which is them set for life. Think of it like the Hogwarts Houses in Harry Potter played for a little more drama. This faction system is kind of an interesting way of playing with that very idea. The whole story is basically an anti-conformity metaphor. Similar to how Spirited Away had our protagonist’s identity taken away and replaced with a number, this story shows the rather damaging nature of categorising people off one specific trait. There were plenty of criticisms of the Hogwarts Houses by people who didn’t quite get that the students choose which one they’re sorted into – so this story is clearly inspired by those criticisms. The idea is that it’s impossible to categorise everyone, and it’s damaging and dehumanising to do so.

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Beatrice goes in and takes her test, administered by a Dauntless girl called Tori (Maggie Q). The test involves taking some formula and going into a really trippy hallucination involving a hall of mirrors. She’s jolted out of it and Tori looks incredibly worried. She tells Beatrice to go home and say the serum made her sick. Her test results said that she actually fit into three of the factions – Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless. Beatrice has never heard of such a thing, while Tori explains that it’s just extremely rare. Beatrice is what they call a Divergent; something she must never tell anyone else about. And when she sees the Factionless in the street as she walks home, she decides she agrees.

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There’s a tense discussion in the Prior household. Erudite apparently doesn’t think Abnegation are fit to act as the government, and the whole faction is under close watch. They have been ever since the son of the leader Marcus Eaton defected to another faction amid rumours of domestic violence. The parents have accepted that they might never see their children again after tomorrow, and so say goodbye. Before they go to bed, Caleb tells his sister that she has to think of the family – but also of herself too. The next day at the ceremony, we meet…

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Holy hell!

Kate Winslet is in this movie. Kate Winslet is playing the villain in a sci-fi dystopia movie. For those who frequent those cosy spaces under rocks, Ms Winslet is a critically acclaimed actress who’s been nominated for several awards. Outside of the film that made her a star – 1997’s Titanic – she has rarely been in a big budget Hollywood production. Ms Winslet explicitly took such a different role because she wanted to do something she’d never done before. After a career of playing romantic leads in various indie dramas, a scheming government official in a sci-fi film doesn’t get much more different. She’s also said that she was glad to finally do a movie that her kids could watch. She was pregnant with her third while this was filming, which explains why she’s always carrying folders and iPads in front of her stomach.

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Kate Winslet plays Jeannine Matthews, the leader of the Erudite faction. She advises the Prior siblings to choose wisely. When it’s Caleb’s turn to choose, he picks Erudite. Beatrice steps up to the podium next and, after a few seconds of dithering, picks Dauntless. Although she’s clearly a little sad at leaving her family behind, you can tell she’s ecstatic about finally getting to join the faction she’s idolised all her life. Dauntless show off their fearless nature by running through the streets, climbing onto monorail bridges and jumping onto the train when it comes by. The way I’ve typed it makes it sound silly. And it does admittedly come across as a little out there on screen. But it’s done in such a way that it still works – and it perfectly captures Beatrice’s excitement at finally being part of the faction. She meets a Candor girl called Christina (Zoe Kravitz) on the train and the new recruits are then introduced to Eric (Jai Courtney) – the tattooed and pierced instructor. He tells them that they must first prove they want to be in Dauntless by jumping off the building.

Beatrice is the first volunteer, and she gladly jumps. There’s a safety net at the bottom, thankfully for her. She’s also told that she can pick a new name if she wants. She decides to rename herself ‘Tris’. They meet another instructor called Four (Theo James). Indeed, it’s after the number, and he doesn’t take kindly to people making fun of it.

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The recruits are separated by those born in Dauntless and the new additions. They also get co-ed dormitories and showers. Tris and Christina form a gender equal ensemble with an Erudite called Will and another Candor called Al.

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Four tells them to forget about their old factions, but oddly gets annoyed when Tris talks back to him. Not flippantly, she just asks if he was a transfer too. Will whispers that Four was top of his class, but refused leadership when offered. Training begins the next day, and Eric informs them that not everyone will qualify for Dauntless. Everyone is to be ranked, and the lowest ranking members will be cut.

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Training involves cardio, firearms and hand-to-hand combat. Tris is understandably not very good on the first few attempts, not helped by the taunting from the asshole Peter (Miles Teller). Christina suggests the four friends get some tattoos to cheer themselves up. At the parlour, she bumps into Tori – the girl who took her test. She tells Tris that she made a mistake choosing Dauntless, since she’s bound to be found out. Afterwards, we get a training montage showing Tris really buckling down to improve. Y’all know what we’re picturing right now…

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I like this particular part of the movie, because it’s very good for Tris’s character growth. A lot of the time, writers can go too far in their attempts to create ‘strong female characters’. The result is usually a girl filled with positive discrimination, who has no flaws, is perfect at everything and never has any kind of struggle. What I like about Tris is that she isn’t automatically good when she starts out. She has the talent and potential, but things aren’t just handed to her. She actually has to work hard and train to become who she is. The story never makes a big deal about her being a girl either. And she doesn’t automatically become good after one training montage; it’s a steep hill up but she keeps at it. She gets a few pointers from Four. It seems we know who the good and bad cops are in this situation – if we take into account Eric’s reaction to Christina forfeiting a sparring match; he pushes her off the bridge. You’ll forgive me if I expected her to sprout wings and fly…

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But she manages to hold on. The next day, the recruits take a trip to the wall. Tris wonders what’s out there beyond it. Will just suggests that it’s places that never survived the war. During a knife throwing exercise, Al pisses off Eric and is ordered to stand in front of the target so Four can throw knives at him. Tris protests against this, and is ordered to take his place. She gets four knives thrown at her and only the last one grazes her. She’s naturally a hero among the initiates for that little stunt. Well to everyone except Peter, who shows her that she’s in the news. Apparently there’s a report further questioning Abnegation’s effectiveness as government – underlined by the fact that the children of two high-ranking officials defected to other factions. Not helping the uneasy feeling is the fact that Erudite official Jeannine Matthews is in the building. She recognises Tris and compliments her on not staying with Abnegation, before disappearing into some kind of control room. Will has heard talk that Erudite are hunting Divergents.

Tris has other things to worry about, as she’s to face Peter in the ring – no doubt Eric’s idea of punishing her for standing up to him. Tris puts up a good fight but Peter pretty much curb stomps her. She regains consciousness in the hospital. Christina and Will give her the bad news that Eric says she’s officially out. But Tris it turns out won’t back down without a fight. The rest of the initiates are heading off on a war games exercise. Tris gets out of the hospital and runs to catch the train. The shocking thing is that Eric seems to be impressed, and lets her in on the exercise. It’s a capture the flag type of thing, and they’ll be using special weapons that simulate the pain of real gunshot wounds. When the exercise starts, Tris has the idea to climb up a Ferris wheel to get a good vantage point. Four decides to be chivalrous and accompany her – even though it turns out he’s afraid of heights. Sure enough, they spot the other flag.

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The war games sequence is very satisfying, since we see Peter and Eric get some comeuppance with some strategically placed gunshots. Tris and Christina are able to get to the place where the flag is and win the exercise. Some book fans have taken exception with this little bit. In the book, Christina is the one who gets the flag. In the film, Tris gets it. I can understand why the change was made, and honestly it was for the better. Mostly because the film is visually showing Tris’s growth. She starts off as a rookie who’s behind most of the others, and gradually improves her game. Claiming the flag and winning the exercise signals that she’s finally achieved what she’s been training for. Christina is a satellite character who functions as Tris’s friend. Winning the exercise does nothing for her, because she has very little effect on the plot. Giving it to Tris helps the audience see how her hard work has finally paid off. It’s like Mulan being the one to conquer the strength and discipline challenge. It wouldn’t have the same impact if one of the others had been the one to do it.

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“See, Chris. Even the reviewer agrees with me.”

As celebration, the initiates go on a zip-line through the city. And we get a very sweet sequence of Tris flying through the skyscrapers. I can pinpoint that as the time I realised how much I was enjoying the story. Four is clearly enjoying Tris’s newfound success too and congratulates her on it. The rankings are shown, and she’s officially climbed up higher. Sometime later, the initiates are out helping load stuff off trucks. Tris bumps into her mother. The reunion is far from pleasant though, as mom warns that she’s in danger. She’s guessed that Tris is a Divergent – and now they’re actively being hunted. She’s most at risk during the next stage of training. It’s mental, rather than physical. It’s a test where they’ll have to face their fears in a simulation. The serum to do so takes Tris to a field where she’s attacked by a flock of crows.

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So we should probably check what movies her parents were letting her watch.

She’s able to get away from them by realising that it’s just a simulation and diving into some nearby water. When she comes out of the simulation, Four informs her that she was in there for three minutes – four times faster than the average. The reasoning here is that Tris has Erudite qualities too – and they would be able to realise how to escape the simulation. Afterwards, Peter decides to antagonise Tris and her friends – especially Al, who’s one of the lower ranking members. Tris goes to see Tori afterwards, and she relates a story about her Divergent brother – who also showed great promise in his tests. Needless to say, he ended up dead. Tris decides to take a train to visit her brother in Erudite. Caleb tells her stories about Erudite possibly running the government soon. Apparently it’s what all the other factions want too.

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‘Other factions’ meaning just her.

Jeannine Matthews calls Tris into her office for a chat while she’s there. Topics range from the casual to the more philosophical. Jeannine is a believer in the idea that human nature is weakness. It leads to all sorts of disharmony and other bad things. It also can lead to people breaking laws, which is what Abnegation have apparently been doing. The subject matter in this is a little on-the-nose, but the two actresses definitely make it work. Kate Winslet is shockingly effective at playing a villain. Jeannine could just as easily come across as a cartoon character – but Ms Winslet gives her the right amount of layers. You can tell she’s bad news, but she keeps it well hidden under a simpering smile. She’s not out to fool us into thinking she’s nice; she’s just subtly warning us that we’re lucky to see her being nice – and we don’t want to see her angry. The tension in this scene is very well done. Back at Dauntless, Tris is attacked by three masked people. They try to throw her down a chasm to kill her. She manages to unmask one of them…

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It turns out that Peter might have gotten under Al’s skin after all. Four is there to save her from them, and takes her back to his room. He’s a gentleman though, and takes the floor for the night. Al comes up to her in the mess hall the next day, clearly trying to apologise. Tris understandably isn’t feeling too sympathetic towards one of the guys who just tried to kill her – and tells him to eff off. But things take a turn for the tragic when they later find Al’s body at the bottom of the chasm. He’d clearly jumped, out of fear of being left Factionless. He’s not the only one who has to worry about that though; Four confronts Tris and we get a nicely done scene where it’s revealed he suspects she’s a Divergent.

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Four takes her inside the fear simulator – but it’s his they go into. He’s going to teach her to beat the simulation the way a Dauntless would. A Divergent would find a way to escape, while a Dauntless would find a tool to combat the fear. The first two are smaller phobias – fear of heights and confined spaces respectively. The third is the fear of what he could be ordered to do – represented by an innocent girl he must shoot. The fourth fear is the worst: his father. His father is Marcus Eaton, the Abnegation leader. So Four is really Tobias Eaton, a transfer from Abnegation. This admittedly isn’t developed or built up as much in the film. On my first watch, I didn’t know who Marcus was supposed to be. On my other watches I did catch up a few mentions here and there, but it could have been developed more. You’ve probably guessed that Four picked his name after the four fears. He also shows Tris a nifty tattoo on his back.

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On next week’s episode of Miami Ink…

It’s after this that they share their first kiss. I have to say that I think the romance between Tris and Four is one of the highlights of the story. And it’s why I don’t really get the Twilight comparisons. For starters, the romance is Twilight is framed around an emotional abuser who stalks his crush. Even though she knows he’s dangerous, she goes after him anyway. He doesn’t want to have sex at all, but loves to boss her around. Likewise, she goes after the guy who doesn’t want sex instead of the one who wants it just as much as she does – all the while justifying his abusive behaviour by saying he’s only doing it because he loves her. In Twilight, Bella’s whole world revolves around her relationship with Edward and she thinks of nothing else. Here? Romance is not the only thing on Tris’s mind. It doesn’t take over the story when it surfaces, rather developing alongside it. The relationship is based around more than just lust – with both teens acting as each other’s confidants. Four keeps Tris’s secret and helps protect her, while also letting her inside his head to see his worst fears. So their relationship is both built on trust and mutual understanding. And when they do get physical, Four respects Tris’s boundaries when she says she doesn’t want to go too fast. This is probably one of the healthiest relationships I’ve ever seen developed in film. It’s also helped by the great chemistry between Shailene Woodley and Theo James.

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The next morning, the teens spot Erudite loading supplies into the Dauntless hangers. Four has found one of the things they’ve brought in – and it’s some kind of serum that appears to make the victim easy to control. And they’re loading these into the faction where everyone is trained in combat. They could probably create an army if they wanted to.

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And since this has already been done.

Tris takes her initiation test. Her fears are represented by a swarm of crows attacking her in a fire, a glass box filling up with water, Four forcing himself on her and Jeannine commanding her to shoot her family. According to the book, the swarm of crows is actually symbolic of her fear of the lack of control. In the box, the water itself is not what she’s afraid of; it’s that she won’t be able to escape it. The last two fears are more obvious. But there is something a few took issue with in the change from book to film. The third fear is different in the book. There it’s more about Tris’s fear of intimacy. When Four kisses her in the hallucination, she’s initially scared but takes control and embraces it. The movie instead has her nearly getting raped, and she kicks him in the balls. In an otherwise very feminist movie, this scene stands out. Rather than going for the positive message of girls embracing their sexuality, it instead goes for the easy option of a girl fearing rape. Remember how I said the media trivialised rape in my Centurion review? This is another case of that. We do have to wonder why it was changed in the film. Is it because fear of intimacy is harder to visualise? Or is it just because the censors and studio heads are still put off by female sexuality?

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Tris passes her test and so do her friends. But afterwards, Eric is having them all injected with a special tracking device. Tris doesn’t have a good feeling about this – and it’s not helped when she wakes up in the middle of the night to find everyone else in some kind of trance. She sees one other person not under the mind control, and he is quickly shot for being Divergent. So she wisely pretends to be hypnotised like everyone else. According to Eric, they can still hear them and be controlled through the serum. On the train, Tris finds Four and he’s not under control either. The train takes them to Abnegation, where the mind-controlled Dauntless ransack houses and start shooting people. Tris and Four are found out and brought before Jeannine Matthews – confirming that Erudite is behind this. Four is taken away, while Tris is sent outside to be shot. But have no fear.

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It turns out that Tris’s mother transferred from Dauntless to Abnegation – though I’m starting to worry about what age Dauntless children start using weapons at. Among the group that comes after them is Tris’s friend Will. And she’s forced to shoot him. Things get even worse for poor Tris when her mother is hit by gunfire. She gets away and meets up with the rest of her family – Caleb having escaped from Erudite beforehand. Tris leads them back into Dauntless, through the hole in the roof she jumped into when she first arrived. She finds Peter there, who isn’t under the mind control, and who knows where they’re controlling it. The Abnegation indulge in a lovely Mexican shoot-off but unfortunately Tris’s father is killed.

Tris gets inside the control room and finds Four tied up. But he’s now under the serum’s control, and attacks her at Jeannine’s orders. Tris is just about able to fight back, but realises she’ll have to kill him if she doesn’t get him to remember her. She points a gun to her own head. After a few seconds of struggling, he remembers.

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Four and Tris take out the rest of the Erudite, just as Jeannine programmes the mind-controlled Dauntless to prepare for a mass execution. Tris’s solution? Throw a knife and impale Jeannine’s hand on the computer. Jeannine still refuses to shut the program down, and Tris sees her brainwashed friends about to murder more Abnegation people. Tris is almost about to kill her, but doesn’t seem to have it in her. Thankfully Four throws her a batch of the serum – and she injects Jeannine with it.

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At their orders, Jeannine shuts the mind control down and wipes the program clean. The Dauntless regain their awareness before any mass murder happens and Tris backhands Jeannine when she tries to attack them. They flee the hanger, in-between an awkward reunion of Four and his father. They hop onto the train, which will take them to the edge of the city. They know they’re fugitives now, with no home, their friends scattered and barely any family left. But they still have each other, and they can face their uncertain future together.

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So after Twilight proved to be a smash hit, a whole slew of YA novels got put up for adaptation. Any paranormal romances tended to flop – Beastly, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, The Host, I Am Number Four. It was The Hunger Games that proved to be the real game-changer, creating a market for PG-13 dystopia stories. Divergent was the real shocker; widely expected to flop, it ended up grossing about $288 million worldwide. Hell, Muppets Most Wanted ended up flopping just by going against it at the Box Office. A surprisingly large amount of the hate for it stems from that alone. A more understandable portion comes from the similarities to The Hunger Games, which The Maze Runner experienced too. I myself had mixed feelings about including it on my list – but those feelings went away as I continued to watch. This is an unexpectedly fun and enjoyable teen sci-fi story – with some great leads, great performances and a romance that actually helps the narrative, rather than bogging it down. You can tell that this was made with a special care and thought for the source material – in a way that a lot of other YA adaptations sadly didn’t get to experience. Is it flawless? Of course not. The film has its flaws, but they don’t hurt it for me or ruin my enjoyment. The second film Insurgent wasn’t as solid as this, but I still plan to see the remaining two. Does it deserve the Twilight-levels of hate it gets? Well obviously I don’t think so. But then again, this is the kind of story I enjoy – so if you’re not one of the people it appeals to then it’s doubtful you’ll like it. But it’s clear that it had some effect on the market. And if you compare the countless other YA adaptations that flopped and bombed, that really is nothing to sneer at.

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Five factions, five grades.

*Story? Despite some similarities to The Hunger Games and a few hitches with world-building, the story is pretty interesting. The anti-conformity allegory was a bit on-the-nose but it still worked. A-

*Characters? Tris makes for an unexpectedly great strong female character. She’s flawed but still good. She gets to have actual character growth and go through an arc. Four makes a good romantic lead for her too. Jeannine was a bit one-dimensional as a villain. B-

*Performances? Shailene Woodley is one of the most talented young actresses of this generation, and shows off her skills. It’s not her strongest role but it’s up there. Theo James does a good accent and is almost as solid as his onscreen girlfriend. Kate Winslet’s performance saves Jeannine from being too one-note. The others – Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Mekhi Phifer – almost begged for more screen time. Jai Courtney was a real standout as Eric. A+

*Visuals? One of the things I really loved about this movie was the use of colour. When Tris is taking her test, the tattoo parlour, in the pits, the capture the flag sequence and the initiation – all the colours are so striking. I definitely loved the vision for the thing. A drawback however was how similar Peter, Al and Will looked; three young white guys with average-length dark hair. One of them could have been a different ethnicity or had a different hair colour just to distinguish them. A-

*Special Effects? The CGI for the zip-line scene was really just showing off. Elsewhere the effects were all done pretty well, enhancing the great visual style. B

*Anything Else? The pacing towards the end was where the film kind of staggered. It was still good and enjoyable – but not as fun as the really solid build in the first two acts. B-

We return to both comedy and the Golden Age of Hollywood with Bringing Up Baby next.

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