Sunday, March 23, 2014

It's Our Choices More Than Our Abilities - Review of "Divergent"

After seeing Divergent yesterday, it took all my willpower not to march straight back to the box office and purchase a ticket for the next screening (well that, and I was with a friend and we were also both ready to go home). In fact, I'm sitting here thinking "Why isn't this out on DVD yet so I can watch it over and over??" It's just so good!

I hadn't read any reviews for Divergent before seeing it, but now I'm noticing a lot of negative stuff from the High And Mighty Critics (which, just transpose my thoughts on the people who determine Oscar nominees to the Elite Literati Movie Critic class and I think we can all agree on what my feelings on what they think are). To which I reply - bullshit. And I'm going to give my ten minute rebuttal.

Yes, we've all seen that Divergent is being compared to The Hunger Games. But the similarities between the two go as follows:

1 - They're both young adult dystopian novels.
2 - They both have female lead protagonists.

And... that's about it for similarities. Which, I guess doesn't make for compelling print media for the low-information crowd, but whatever. In reality, these two stories are vastly different. And here is where I'm going to enter spoiler territory for both the book and the movie, so if you have neither read the book nor seen the movie, now is the time to turn away (and get yourself to the library or bookstore or movie theater and correct this problem - for it is indeed a problem and lacking on your part).

The story starts out brilliantly with Beatrice Prior (played by Shailene Woodley) narrating the opening while we see images of a futuristic Chicago - which has either severely gone the way of Detroit, or was incredibly made-up in CGI to look like a complete ruin. Beatrice explains that, in her society, people are divided into five factions: Abnegation for people who value selflessness, Amity for people who value kindness, Candor for people who value honesty, Dauntless for people who value bravery, and Erudite for people who value intelligence. And when I say these factions value these traits - I mean that those traits are they're entire lives! Anyone who doesn't live up to the faction ideals is a weirdo at best, Factionless at worst. Beatrice is from Abnegation, but she and her brother Caleb, are old enough to be part of the Choosing Ceremony, where children from the different factions can decide to stay in the factions they were born into, or they can transfer to a faction that they feel they are most suited for. But before Ceremony takes place, they are subjected to a mental test that will tell them where their innate tendencies lie and that's supposed to help them make their decisions.

What I love about the opening narration is that it's not just a straight info-dump - it's also a vehicle to show how Beatrice doesn't know what she should choose. She's never felt totally selfless, but she knows it would hurt her parents if she left Abnegation. She admires Dauntless most of all, but, again, Dauntless and Abnegation are such opposites. Turns out, when she takes her test, she discovers she's Divergent - which is someone who doesn't fit in any one faction. And Divergence is a threat to the society - if anyone discovered she was Divergent, she would be killed.

Nothing like a hefty dose of "You're So Different You Might Die" to usher you into adulthood, right?

At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice chooses Dauntless - the brave faction. Although "bravery" most of the time manifests itself more like "stupidity" (they don't get on the train like normal, sane people. To prove they have no fear, they run and jump on the damn thing while it's running at high speeds!)

(We all know which faction I would NOT be joining, right?)

But Beatrice - now styling herself as Tris (because Beatrice is a dopey Abnegation name) - proves herself continually through the eyes of her trainers. Including Four (played by Theo James) - who is the best Dauntless has to offer, and also the most mysterious and the hottest.

What sold me on the book when I read it is also what sells me on this movie - the story and the characters. Not just Tris (although her storyline with her family is compelling as hell), but also Four's background. I don't want to give it away, even though I gave the spoiler alert (some things you have to discover on your own). But I will say that I love how he isn't all broody and emo, like what often happens in popular YA novels nowadays. Even though we're meant to think he's the dark, hot, and grim love interest, there are so many levels to his character - as Tris discovers when Four takes her into his own fear landscape to practice the mental component of Dauntless training.

I have to take about the main leads. Because even though Tris is the main protagonist, Divergent is just as much Four's story as it is Tris's - and as their relationship grows and blossoms into something amazing, it becomes a story of two halves. First of all, I LOVE that their relationship is given time to grow organically, which makes the characters seem even more believable. And I'll be honest, when the trailers and the promo images started coming out, I wasn't sure how I felt about Shailene Woodley and Theo James in the lead roles. But the pair of them totally blew me away! (we're going to blame the marketing department on the low expectations here). Even from the first scene where Tris jumps into the underground Dauntless compound from a five(ish) story building and Four is there to greet her, the whole theater crackled with their chemistry (sorry for the cliche there, but I couldn't think of what else to call it). In their strange little Dauntless way, it was like they were friends right at the offset and then their friendship became something more - especially when Four discovers that Tris is Divergent - but he doesn't report her, even though he's in leadership. In fact it comes out that Four is Divergent as well (this revelation slowly builds up until the climax where the Dauntless are forced to become mind-numbed zombie soldiers thanks to a control serum that doesn't work on Divergents, but they both have to pretend that they are under mind-control in order not to get killed).

The leads are awesome. No doubt about that. But what about the supporting cast?

Well - Ashley Judd is in this movie *sigh*. I'm not a fan of Ashley Judd just because I just find her to be a contemptible person in general. But she plays Tris's mother and I knew she's not in it much and that she dies at the end, so I felt I could overlook her character (but can I just say - I had the hardest time believing that she really had any feeling toward Tris. And when they're running for their lives under gunfire and they're firing back, I was just "Ashley, have you EVER held a gun in you entire life??")

Happily, we have Kate Winslet as the antagonist, Jeanine Matthews. And similar to how Woodley and James worked so well together, Winslet is just as good on her own as the villain. It's evident from the beginning that her character is not to be trusted, but the way she plays it - you want to like her, you want Tris to like her. But at the same time, you know she's bad news. The ending confrontation only shines because of that. So, second only to the relationship between Tris and Four, I adored Kate Winslet in this movie.

The rest of the cast is pretty good. If I had one complaint about the book, it's that there were so many characters and so many names to keep track of. Veronica Roth does an excellent job of keeping track of so many plotlines and personalities, but I had a hard time keeping up in places. Luckily, the movie streamlined a lot of these characters into a core group - and I really only remembered one name - Christina, played by Zoe Kravitz. Mostly because the character made herself memorable and it's a particularly hard name for me to forget :) Christina is a Dauntless transfer from Candor and she and Tris become fast friends. I think she had a love interest of her own in the book, but it was cut from the movie, which I think was a good thing. She had plenty to do as Tris's sidekick (of sorts) and she was the unofficial ringleader of the other Dauntless intiates. And that's all they really needed there - other than that one douchey guy that tried to kill Tris, but he was quickly forgotten (at least, for me).

Basically, Divergent captured the spirit and the tone of the book and gave us all a great look into this world. The set design is amazing and the CGI effects are stellar (my favorite part is the scene with Tris on the zip-line flying through buildings and seeing the city in a way she's never done before - that's where you really feel like she's learning to be part of her faction and you're happy for her). The way they treated Divergent gives me hope for the next movie - which, I find Insurgent to be a weaker story, simply because it gets padded out waaaaaay too much narratively (I think you could cut out 100 pages of that thing). But I'm hoping the movie will pare it down to the essential story elements and that it might be better than the book (which, believe you me, is not something I say very often).

Anyway - Divergent is awesome, just like the book on which it's based (so I guess we can add a third similarity between this and The Hunger Games). If you loved the book, you'll love the movie. If you've never read the book, you'll still love the movie. If you hated the book... well, we need to talk about your life choices.

(More Tris and Four, please!)

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