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“Divergence”: Ludicrous Dystopia

Film Review Divergent Summit Entertainment

Summit Entertainment

David Ives - published on 03/20/14

This might actually be a good movie for parents to go see with their teens.

Back in October 2012 in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a nineteen-year-old man by the name of Ilavarasan married a young woman with whom he had fallen in love. Now in most places, such a thing wouldn’t raise a single eyebrow, but among many of the citizens of Tamil Nadu, it caused a firestorm of fury. Ilavarasan, it turns out, was a member of the Dalits, the lowest of India’s five traditional castes, while his wife had been born amongst the Brahmins, the highest ranking caste in Indian society. This pairing between an “untouchable” and one of the upper classes upset a lot of people because, even though modern Indian law now permits inter-caste marriage, a good portion of the population still finds the idea abhorrent. Ilavarasan’s wife eventually left him due to the viciousness of the public outcry over their marriage, but the separation wasn’t enough to assuage the anger in the air. In August 2013, Ilavarasan was found dead by the side of the railroad tracks, presumably murdered for daring to overstep the boundaries of his social status.

To those of us in the United States, the idea of living under the shadow of such a rigid caste system is completely alien. This country is, after all, the “Land of the Free” – a place where (in theory) anybody can try out for any career they’re qualified for, move to any place they can afford, and marry anyone (within reason) that they love. No red-blooded American would ever volunteer to give up all that freedom and adopt a social caste system similar to India’s. (Unless somebody dropped a bunch of bombs on us, that is.)

Well, that’s the premise behind Divergent. The latest in a long line of Young Adult novel adaptations to hit the big screen since the Harry Potter series proved you could make a fortune doing so, Divergent takes place at an unspecified time in the future after a war has left the citizenry of the City-State of Chicago walled off from the rest of the country. Left to their own devices, the fine folks of the Windy City apparently decided that the best way to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty was to put in place a caste system somewhat reminiscent of India’s.

There are some notable differences between the two societies, however. While India’s present-day caste system is no longer officially endorsed by law, future Chicago’s is stringently enforced by the government. On the other hand, unlike in India, where heredity alone determines your social status, there is an opportunity in Chicago to escape the caste into which you were born. Once a year, all sixteen-year-olds participate in a required psychological aptitude test to determine which faction they are best suited for mentally. Afterwards, they may then choose to remain in the caste of their birth, or leave their families and join one of the other factions. Once the choice is made, however, it is permanent. There are no do-overs.

The primary difference, though, is how the divisions between the castes are structured. While India’s ranks are based mostly on occupational duties as outlined in ancient Brahminical texts (priests/scholars, governors, farmers/merchants, etc.), the organization of Chicago’s system is based on personality traits which appear to have been selected at random from one of those inspirational “word of the day” calendars. By name and trait, the five factions in Chicago are Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peaceful), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (bravery), and Erudite (intelligence). Once a teen has made their choice which faction they wish to belong to, they must then embody that faction’s singular trait to the upteenth degree. Abnegations must be so dead to their selves that they even abstain from looking in mirrors more than a few seconds each day. Dauntless must be so fearless that they are willing to jump from a moving train just to go pick up a snack. And so on. The philosophy behind such a division is that human individuality is what ultimately led to the great disaster, so in order to maintain a secure existence, all citizens must purge themselves of any personality except for that one trait which benefits society as a whole.

Of course, while ninety-nine percent of the population finds it easy to fall into one of the five factions, there are occasionally those teens who just can’t seem to fit into a single category, even if they really want to. Those whose aptitude tests indicate they can’t be shoehorned into one particular group are labeled Divergents and either cast out into the streets amongst the factionless or, as we come to find out over the course of the movie, are summarily executed. Basically, it’s conform or die.

It all makes perfect sense… if you’re thirteen years old. If I thought for one minute that the creators of Divergent wanted me to take the caste system in their movie seriously, I would have walked out in the first five minutes. The logical part of my brain couldn’t bear the insult. But since the target audience for the story is so obviously middle and high-schoolers, I’m willing to take its ridiculous dystopia with a grain of salt and accept it for the allegory it undoubtedly is. For instance, when the heroine of the story, Beatrice, sits in the aptitude chair (this world’s techno-babble version of Harry Potter’s sorting hat) and learns her Divergence prevents the computer from selecting which faction best suits her personality, it’s an obvious metaphor for every kid who has ever felt pressure from parents and administrators to pick a college major even though they haven’t a single clue as to what they want to do with the rest of their lives. And when Beatrice finally makes the decision on Choosing Day to leave Abnegation for Dauntless, it’s pretty clear she’s a stand-in for all those teenaged viewers who feel like they need to abandon the ideologies of their parents in order to find their true selves. The entire concept of Divergence is aimed squarely at those kids who feel like everybody in the world but themselves has their act together.

In short, as a middle-aged guy, I’m not really the audience Divergent was made for. My days of worrying over what I’m going to do with my life have long since been replaced with concerns over how to feed my family and how to best pass along the Christian values my own children need, but may ultimately reject. And I’m also old enough to have learned that those same values, which I myself once abandoned for quite awhile, are usually the very things one is drawn back to later in life when all that “finding yourself” inevitably leads to one dead-end after another. So maybe I’m not really the person to give an honest read on how impactful or meaningful Divergent’s storyline is.

I am, however, a guy who reviews a lot of movies, so I can definitely speak to the film on a technical level. After Beatrice joins Dauntless and changes her name to Tris (of course she does), the film develops some serious pacing issues. You see, Tris begins to suspect that one of the other factions intends to wrest governance of Chicago away from Abnegation by brainwashing Dauntless into being its brute squad. But rather than immediately pursue this plot point, t
he movie spends almost an hour and a half on interminable Dauntless training sequences and the budding romance between Tris and her hunky trainer, Four. It’s only after about two hours have passed that the film realizes it needs to wrap things up, at which point it desperately attempts to cram the entire battle for Chicago into the last ten minutes. Maybe teenaged girls (or those who are teenaged girls at heart) will appreciate the film lazily focusing on the adolescent soap opera elements for most of its running time, but for everyone else, the film is likely to be something of a slog with a rushed and unsatisfying ending.

And yet, even though the premise is ludicrous and the storytelling is lacking, Divergent might still be a good film for parents to see with their teens (if the kids can stand such a thing) and discuss afterwards. At the worst, it offers a chance for an impromptu social studies lesson on real life situations such as India’s caste system. But the movie might also prove interesting enough to spark a discussion about all of its underlying allegorical themes and those particular teenage turmoils which have applied to us all at some point in our lives. The kids just might be surprised to learn that even mom and dad were a bit “divergent” in their day.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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