Some time ago, I applied for a management position at Staples (I was broke, unemployed and needed to pay rent — sue me). Following my interview, I was asked to take what was known as a “personality test”. Computer generated, the assessment was mostly comprised of statements like “I often cry in public” and asked me to answer either True or False. I never got a call back for that job, which irked me to no end. My resume was loaded with experience, my interview had gone great and I had even worn my best To Boot NYs, so all that was left to disqualify me was that stupid box, which apparently decided through some kind of complex algorithm that I did not contain multitudes. The post-apocalyptic society in Divergent operates on the same basic principal, placing each of its members into one of five shoddily defined groups using a combination of that same character exam and the Project MKUltra tests conducted by the CIA in the late 50s and 60s. It’s a central conceit so lunkheaded, I honestly am struggling with fathoming it being based on a popular, pre-existing Young Adult text.
Having never read Veronica Roth’s series of novels, I’m hoping that they don’t resemble first drafts quite like the cinematic adaptation does. There’s a war (over what, we never know) that has wiped out most of the US (and the world? Again — unclear). In Chicago, the people are divided up into personality types: Abnegation, meant for the selfless; Amity, meant for the peaceful; Candor, meant for the honest; Dauntless, meant for the brave; and Erudite, meant for the intelligent. I can only assume that all of the thesauruses in the future were destroyed as well, seeing as each group’s members treat their given titles as if they were something unique and not simple synonyms. A motivation for this class division is never really specified, nor is the body of government truly defined (a bureaucrat, played by a chilly Kate Winslet, seems to oversee everything with an iPad). What’s particularly strange is that whatever conflict occurred also seemingly robbed this section of the human race of their spines, as everyone just goes along with the new way of life without questioning its obvious inherent stupidity.
Upon turning sixteen, all members of this newly formed society of lemmings must take an aptitude test, which consists of being dosed with high-powered acid that reveals what specific clan they belong to. After taking the test, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is reveled to be like most human beings (I’ll refer you again to Section 51 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”) in that she cannot be categorized as one thing. In the world Roth has created, this is known as being Divergent. At the somewhat superfluous “Choosing Day” ceremony (where the candidate can either accept or reject the test’s results, thus rendering them kind of pointless), ‘Trice chooses “Team Dauntless”. The movie then transitions into being a YA version of Full Metal Jacket (or Rocky IV, depending on your frame of reference) where the new recruits’ mettle is tested by a pair of trainers (Jai Courtney and Theo James) who determine if the youths are to be accepted into the army or cast off, thus rendering them homeless.
We need to talk about Jai Courtney. Playing Eric, the sadistic Dauntless trainer, his entire character design is like a hardcore scene kid version of Tyler Durden from Fight Club. He prowls the bowels of the hollowed-out building the team trains in, barking orders at the candidates and espousing the virtues of the rules they all must abide by. Unlike his abysmal turn as John McClane’s son in A Good Day to Die Hard, there’s some semblance of life to the performance, despite the fact that he looks like he prepared for the role by locking himself in a windowless room with nothing but the Victory Records catalogue and a piercing gun. His lighter half (and eventual ‘Trice love interest), Four (Theo James), fares slightly better, despite having seemingly been named by a futuristic George Costanza. James’ delivery is wooden, but he’s hunky and somewhat charismatic, sporting a fake tattoo that covers his back and gives the girls something to whistle at once he pulls the inevitable Lautner and takes off his shirt.
Neil Burger has never been a particularly dynamic or even interesting filmmaker. His worst output is based on similarly stupid premises (see Bradley Cooper take brain pills in Limitless!) while his best has all the visual verve of a History Channel special (The Illusionist). Despite the world’s end setting, Divergent feels decidedly small scale; like a pilot for a series that ABC Family created to compete with NBC’s Revolution. There are moments of green screen and CGI that are distractingly cheap (with all of the first act world-building looking straight up SyFy), while the bloodless, climactic shoot-out can’t quite transcend feeling like a bunch of pretty people being unleashed in the plastic gun section of Toys ‘R Us. Credit must be paid, though, to dual editors Richard Francis-Bruce and Nancy Richardson; they keep the one-hundred-forty-minute runtime from feeling completely interminable, assembling the picture in a workmanlike fashion that moves along at a fairly fast pace.
We’ve come to a point where the Young Adult genre can now be separated into two distinct categories: the bonafide pieces of cinema that allow their talent to flourish (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games) and the obvious cash-ins that resemble ’70s Italian knock-offs of their much better halves (The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures). As you can probably deduce from my obvious disdain, Divergent unfortunately fits into the latter classification. While the final battle definitely provides closure to this tale, I can’t say that I’m remotely interested in seeing this world being explored any further. The class divides are understandable from a marketing perspective (it gives fans of the novels different “teams” to identify with while preaching a positive message of retaining one’s individuality), but add to up to little more than a dumbed down take on Philip K. Dick’s Clans of the Alphane Moon. One thing is definitely certain — I don’t feel as bad about losing that job at Staples any longer, as Divergent has shown me that personality tests can be utilized in a far more societally detrimental fashion.