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Divergent (2014)
Director: Neil Burger

review by Andrew Darlington
Spoiler alert!
I blame Harry Potter. It was the tedious boy wizard who first alerted the movie industry, by way of a publishing phenomenon, that there's gold in them there kidults, that there's an exploitable 'young adult' demographic out there ripe for the plunder. Although Hermione had her moments at Hogwarts, what came next, although derivative, had positives to recommend them. The Twilight saga based on Stephanie Meyer's series of novels, the Hunger Games franchise adapted from Suzanne Collins' fiction, and even the Kass Morgan-derived post-apocalypse TV series The 100.

Set in another bleak dystopia - Divergent shares several traits with them, not least of which being their strong female-centric leads. And there are inevitable cross-overs. Shailene Woodley was tipped to play 'Katniss Everdeen' in The Hunger Games, before the role went to Jennifer Lawrence. Here, Woodley plays Beatrice 'Tris' Prior, who is a 'Divergent' - which means that she doesn't fit into the rigidly-structured social hierarchy of future Chicago. There are five distinct social factions; a place for everyone; and everyone knows their place... except Tris. People feel threatened by destabilizing free-thinking 'Divergents', so they must conceal their identity. At a time when a depressing number of youth seem to have bought into becoming hedge-fund managers, or playing the stock market, or failing that, defining their destiny by scoring a place on X-Factor, it's reassuring that the social misfit is still a default setting for teen angst.

A century after nuclear war, Chicago is surrounded by a separation fence. "They say the war was terrible, that the rest of the world was destroyed. Our founders built the wall to keep us safe." So what's outside? 'Monsters!' Her family are 'Abnegation' who resemble a self-sacrificing Puritan sect. "We lead a simple life, selfless, dedicated to helping others." Unlike generic blockbusters, the CGI wow-spectacle is low-key restrained. Limited to the fantasy sequences in which 16-year-olds undergo a hallucinogenic assignment process to determine their suitability for adult factions. Her aptitude results are predictably inconclusive. It doesn't work on her. So, by the pricking of her palms, she becomes 'Dauntless' who are "our protectors, our soldiers, our police. I always thought they were amazing. Brave, fearless and free. Some people think Dauntless are crazy, when they kind of are." Their craziness consists of a signature leaping off a speeding train onto the tower-block rooftop, which is the bit they show in the promo-trailers.

She passes through initiation and trials, war-games that resemble a slightly more hazardous laser-quest or paint-balling, and zip-wires between city-blocks, enthusing "that was awesome," which is something Shailene's 'Kaitlin' character from The O.C. might have said! Elsewhere she convincingly portrays the vulnerability, countered by the determination with which she competes within the faction. She burns her old clothes, and renames herself 'Tris', with the state of her coiffure signifying her liberation, from the tight Abnegation bun, into a ponytail, then progressively free-flowing. She earns the grudging respect of hunky good-guy Tobias 'Four' (Theo James). Until the psychological aspect of her training replicates her 'trip', by being attacked by virtual Hitchcockian birds in a 'fear landscape' supposedly located outside the fence. But, fearing she's soon to be 'outed' as Divergent, she must fool the testing process by not using her intelligence, but relying on resourcefulness to escape its simulated hazards. So Trish and Four share a 'trip'. Afterwards, he takes his shirt off to show her his tats, and inevitably a certain amount of snuggery results.

Their first military operation turns out to be against Abnegations, in a factional power-struggle orchestrated by 'Erudite' Jeanine Matthews, played as a kind of authoritarian Hilary Clinton figure by Kate Winslet. Is human nature a weakness? "Human nature is the enemy," she insists. Naturally, Tris is not happy. Particularly when her Mum (Ashley Judd) intervenes, but is killed. She leads Dad (Tony Goldwyn), and brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), against the narcotic control system that ensures Dauntless obedience. Dad is also gunned down. And Four is serum-conditioned, so that Tris finds herself fighting him. It's a dilemma. Is love stronger than conditioning? Of course it is. In the final resolution Tris uses her own thought-control drug on Matthews to shut down the genocide and restore peace.

In the way that genres remake and reinvent themselves the themes and plotting are fairly unoriginal, but hang their familiarity together in an appealing way. It leads the 'Divergent universe' towards Insurgent (2013), the second novel of Veronica Roth's trilogy, and the resolution of the film's open endings in the post-war eugenic-experiments outside the sealed city. But in movie terms, that is still to come.

The score is sombre, enlivened by the kind of moody melodic indie perpetrated by Ellie Goulding, Snow Patrol and Skrillex. Because there's a target exploitable young adult demographic out there who relate to that kind of thing. Meanwhile, already there's The Maze Runner (2014), another post-apocalypse movie scenario, derived from Y.A. source-novels by James Dashner. I blame Harry Potter.


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