At first glance, Divergent sounds like a more contrived version of Hunger Games. In a dark dystopian future, everybody is required to have just one personality trait. Like Smurfs. Or the Seven Dwarfs. But the film version does a good job of revealing how this story is actually about social engineering. Plus, it's actually fun!
Even though Divergence clearly wants to be the next Hunger Games, it's not really cut from the same cloth at all — Hunger Games has a pretty clear message about the gulf between the rich and everyone else, and the ways in which the powerful use media culture and the spectacle of violence to control dissent. Meanwhile, Divergent is nowhere near as violent, or as grim, as Hunger Games, nor does it have quite the same level of social relevance.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll already know the basic premise of Divergent: In a horrible, no-good future, the world is a wasteland except for Chicago, which is a walled city. Inside Chicago's walls, everybody belongs to one of five "factions" that represent different virtues: bravery, kindness, honesty, selflessness and intelligence. Whichever faction you belong to, that's the trait that you live by.
But as the film version makes clear in its opening moments, this arrangement is much more about division of labor — the Dauntless faction of brave people is the soldiers and cops, the Abnegation faction of selfless people run the government, and for some reason the Amity faction of kind people are the farmers. (Why are farmers kind? No clue.)
And thus, this whole baroque allegory becomes much more of a comment on the dangers of extreme specialization, and letting your job define you. And the society that spawned this bizarre structure becomes an example of social engineering taken to ruthless extremes. As we're told over and over (and over), this focus on categorizing everybody is all about control.
So in Divergent, Beatrice (aka Tris) is born into the Abnegation faction that theoretically runs things while eating gruel and being generally Quaker-ish. One day, Tris goes off to the personality-testing center to find out which faction she ought to join, now that she's old enough — and after a trippy sequence of staring at herself in a shifting hall of mirrors that looks like a mid-80s Sting video, she finds out that she doesn't exactly fit into any of the five factions. She is... Divergent.
In other words, Tris has an inner life and a complex emotional landscape, but all the people around her are one-dimensional and exactly who they appear to be on the surface. This is the purest manifestation I've ever seen of the fantasy that many of us nurture in our most secret places: I'm a multi-layered individual with a rich inner life that nobody else could possibly understand, whereas the rest of you people are just single-minded drones.
But in a sense, Tris is fulfilling the same function as the Savage in Brave New World, or the one outsider in countless other dystopias — audience surrogate and instigator of dissent.
So when the big day comes and Tris has to choose a faction, she doesn't pick the humble self-effacing faction her parents belong to. Instead, she chooses the Dauntless faction, who act like one of the gangs in West Side Story except that they dress in cool jumpsuits. If you're in Dauntless, you're forbidden to walk anywhere — they only travel by jumping on and off moving trains, or by rapelling across the city, or by jumping off buildings. Etc. etc. etc. The members of Dauntless never actually burst into song, but I kept expecting them to. (Note to producers: "Dauntless" almost rhymes with "hotness.")
So at this point, Tris has two challenges: She has to make the cut in Dauntless, even though she's not naturally fearless like the rest of them. And she has to make sure nobody finds out she's Divergent, because Divergent people are killed on the spot for the threat they represent to the social order. (This is explained at some length by Tori (Maggie Q), who administers the personality tests but also works as a tattoo artist — basically, if there's futuristic poking and prodding involved, Maggie Q is there.)
Once Tris joins the Dauntless kids, she's hazed like crazy, and gets the crap kicked out of her over and over. In fact, what saves Tris from feeling like a Mary Sue (i.e., a too-perfect paragon whom everybody loves) is that she's pretty much a giant punching bag for the bulk of this film. She gets tenderized. And she nearly gets dropped from Dauntless, which would mean becoming a homeless social outcast, because the mean trainer guy Eric (Jai Courtney) has it in for her.
Luckily, not only does Tris make a few friends among the other trainees, she also hits it off with one of the other trainers, a guy named Four (Theo James). And even though being Divergent is supposed to be the biggest crime in this evil future society, Four has a giant tattoo all over his back showing the signs of all the factions, just to broadcast to everyone and anyone that he can't be pigeonholed because he is a Free Spirit.
It's easy to poke holes in Divergent or to point out the joyously nonsensical elements — but the thing that is straight-up admirable about this film is how it depicts the way that mechanisms of social control try to coopt your sense of identity and your dreams to reshape you into a monolithic entity. A lot of this film's imaginative power comes from the ways that it tries to show, visually, the process of cooptation, through weird artificially induced dream sequences as well as kinetic action scenes. Director Neil Burger previously directed the smart-drug movie Limitless, and he brings the same focus on altered states and interior landscapes to this film.
In other areas, though, Divergent falls a bit flat — a surprisingly high proportion of the film consists of close-up shots of people's faces, often as they're explaining a plot point. Also, rather a lot of the non-closeup shots are either blurry or suffer from shaky-cam. In some ways this is borrowing the "documentary" style director Gary Ross used for the first Hunger Games, but without the explicit sense that you're watching someone on television. (There are a few really nice "money shots" of the future Chicago, but I also wondered if the blurry/wobbly thing was partly to cover for a lack of money.)
It's easy to see why Divergent has already become such an addictive phenomenon: it deals with two major anxieties: making the grade, and understanding your own identity. Tris seems to think that joining Dauntless will mean freedom, because they're the faction that laugh in the face of danger and fear, but soon discovers that she's only chosen a different kind of imprisonment. As long as she's inside the faction system, she'll never be her own person.
There's also an interesting thread running through Tris' story about the nature of fearlessness — her "superpower" is that she can deal with fear rationally, instead of just suppressing it the way the other kids in Dauntless do. There's something kind of heartening about a heroic fantasy where being able to reason with fear is portrayed as a wonderful trait.
In the end, the movie's resolution depends on a random conspiracy that seems somewhat shoe-horned in, and which shows that the "faction" system Tris lives under was always going to collapse under its own weight. (On the plus side, that conspiracy pushes the idea of controlling people through hyper-specialization to its furthest extreme.)
But the thing that sticks with you, after watching Divergent, is mostly that jumping onto moving trains is really fun — and that people who try to pigeon-hole you as a means of turning you into a cog in their economic machine are kind of horrible.