Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Just Another Y.A. Blockbuster

Thanks to the box office success of Twilight and The Hunger Games, we can pretty much expect every semi-popular young adult novel to get big screen treatment in the near future. Every studio of worth out there will spend the next few years purchasing filming rights, throwing them at audiences, and seeing what sticks. We've already seen several examples of failures ranging from I am Number Four to Beautiful Creatures, and if there's something to be said for the adaptation of Veronica Roth's Divergent, it's that it stuck. Not "great" or "wonderful," or even "unique."That's because the story is so derivative of other, better material that it's bound to appeal to not only fans of the novels but any similar moviegoer curious enough to check it out.

The movie follows The Descendants star Shailene Woodley as Tris (God, it even rhymes with "Katniss"), as she navigates the trials of growing up in the ruins of a futuristic, post-war Chicago. Society in this world has been divided into five factions to maintain peace, and Tris is of the age where she can decide whether to stay with her family in the kind and selfless Abnegation faction, or join one of the other four groups, which pride themselves on traits like intelligence, honesty, and peacefulness. This is complicated when the test that helps students decide to what faction they "belong" fails to work on Tris, categorizing her as "Divergent" and unlikely to fit in anywhere. Naturally, Divergents are treated as enemies of the system, and our heroine tries to hide her nature by joining up with the brave, kinda-crazy faction "Dauntless", where she falls for the hunky instructor known as "Four" (Theo James). But when Divergent-hunters come calling... you know what? Forget it, I'm just going to stop right there.
She got tattoos! So you know she has an edge now.
There is barely a single word or sentence in that previous paragraph that could not be used to describe countless titles that have come out just in the past decade (except perhaps Abnegation... learn something new every day!), and that's Divergent's biggest, BIGGEST problem. Whether it's due to the direction of Neil Burger (Limitless), the screenplay by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), or even Roth's novel itself (Or, most likely, a combination of all three), the biggest sin is that there is barely anything noteworthy or original to grasp onto and declare "Yes, this is why it's special!" For all the crap I give it, Twilight took a familiar concept (supernatural) and put a unique twist on creating its universe. The Hunger Games, while ostensibly a copy of the Japanese book/movie Battle Royale, still made itself original enough to stand alone (not to mention the casting of Jennifer Lawrence). Beautiful Creatures had an amazing and appropriate setting. I am Number Four and the Harry Potter franchise had excellent lore. Divergent DOES have an interesting premise, with the factions and the disparity between them, but barely touches on it in what amounts to a rote, romance/action story. Well, to be fair, it also has... umm... wait a moment... it has... ergh... well, no... I guess... excellent acting?
Why hast thou forsaken us, Kate?
Yes, Divergent is fortunate to have such an amazing cast assembled, because they absolutely needed the best. The characters are so one-dimensional that only someone with the chops of Ashley Judd, or Kate Winslett, or Maggie Q, or Mekhi Phifer, or Ray Stevenson could make it work. When Miles Teller shows up as the generic bully, he actually brings some gravitas to the role. When Tony Goldwyn appears on screen, he isn't just a blank slate as Tris' father, but actually shows some magnetism, through his voice if not in his poorly-written words (one character ironically wonders why people keep asking her the same question; it's because of the inept dialogue, dear). And it's a good thing Shailene Woodley and Theo James are such excellent performers; Woodley plays the worst kind of female heroine, whose actions are entirely based on what is done to her and not on any driving force behind her vanilla temperament; while James' character development begins and ends with "brooding hottie". And yet, both actors make the material work through sheer force of personality. The romance between them, while basic, predictable and cliched, ends up working by virtue of their great chemistry, and they do the absolute most they can with the material. If it wasn't for that, this wouldn't much of a film. Yes, there are a few legitimate duds in Jai Courtney and Zoe Kravitz (sheez, Divergent even has a Kravitz in the cast), but even they don't detract from the story too much when all is said and done.
Where Hollywood thinks women should be: out of sight and silent.
But the acting can't fully save a story that borrows from literally every genre and trope in existence, from The Matrix (one person throwing a system out of whack), to Logan's Run ("I'm hiding my secret from the ruling government!") to Starship Troopers ("Let's get tattoos!"). Seriously, if the villains were as smart as they are supposed to be, they'd have realized that their plot to take over the city has been done a million times before, and BETTER. It's almost as if Roth cobbled together this tale from all the pop culture references and Young Adult novels she had accumulated in her young life, with nary an original thought or idea. To be fair, that might be over-simplifying things a bit; I have yet to read the book, so I can't say how many of Divergent's problems stem from her writing and how much from the adaptation process itself. But if she had ONE original thought when she compiled her novel, it never make its way to the big screen. Even the faction system is not a truly original concept, and that's the closest Divergent ever gets to declaring its independence from standard YA fare. The story is so reliant on coincidence - from Maggie Q's first appearance to just about EVERY major twist and turn - that it defies all expectation for the audience to accept the plot as it develops. And I'd even go so far as to say that wouldn't necessarily a BAD thing, as long as the story itself is told competently and the actors do a good job with the material. In fact, Burger is a pretty good, if not great, director, especially suited to this type of non-risky script, as he proved in 2011's Limitless. Even though the script is the kind of hackery that would demand multiple rewrites if it not for the film's brand recognition, Divergent turns into a competent, if not standout, filmmaking product.
Get it? It's "Red pill, Blue pill!"
Divergent tries to push a moral of anti-conformity and self-identification, but ironically does it in the most conformist fashion possible, stealing from everything that has come before and not standing out even remotely on its way to box office success. Naturally, every YA movie adaptation wants to see the same kind of success as The Hunger Games, but Divergent could only WISH that it was as interesting, compelling and urgent as the movie whose success it would wish to emulate. It's definitely a BAD movie, and yet also a WELL-MADE bad movie that overcomes many of its narrative obstacles through heart and sheer force of will. If only the filmmakers had taken more risks, as the movie does nothing to differentiate itself from the bland, predictable tropes and cliches that have never been so transparently on display as they are here. If it had attempted to deviate from the terrifyingly dull norm it had set for itself, it might have turned into something great. As it stands, Divergent is just okay, and I think we'll see subsequent sequels Insurgent and Allegiant justifiably fall off in audiences as a result. Teen girls (and anyone who identifies with teen girls) will watch and enjoy anyway, but anyone else can steer clear.

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