About halfway through the new dystopian science fiction film Divergent, the heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley), is given a test in which she must face her greatest fears through a series of induced hallucinations. The problem is, Tris is special, and so—unlike the others taking the test—she breezes through the challenges because she knows they’re not real. Like a lucid dreamer, the nightmares have no power over her, and she is able to dismiss them with a casual, contemptuous ease. (Faced with drowning in a tank of water, for example, she is able to simply tap lightly on the glass and shatter—literally and metaphorically—the fourth wall.) If Tris wants to pass the test and avoid attention, she is advised, she must at least pretend she finds these ridiculous situations believable, and react accordingly.
This, coincidentally, is the same challenge that awaits the viewer of the film. Every fiction requires what Samuel Coleridge called “a willing suspension of disbelief,” of course, and sci-fi and fantasy stories require more than most. But the ludicrous world of Divergent—director Neil Burger’s adaptation of a young-adult novel by Veronica Roth—requires us to keep such a careful, tight-fisted rein on our disbelief that the effort becomes positively exhausting. (The suspension of my own disbelief was decidedly unwilling during the opening exposition dump, strained precariously throughout the otherwise enjoyable middle of the film, and had snapped completely by the 2-hour-20-minute mark when the messy third act finally ended.) Those who are able to pretend they find Divergent‘s situations believable will find a few random pleasures along the way, but I’m not sure any of it is worth the constant effort of pretending to be dumber than we are.
Set in a post-apocalyptic version of my home town of Chicago, Divergent imagines a future in which all human beings are divided into “factions” according to their dominant personality traits: the kind belong in Amity, where they are farmers; the selfless go to Abnegation, to tend the needs of others; the honest become lawyers in Candor; the logical are intellectuals in Erudite; and the brave become warriors and peacekeepers in Dauntless. In their teen years, all members of the society are tested to reveal where they belong, and then must choose once and for all which faction to join. This, we are told repeatedly by slightly sinister Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet), is the only way to maintain the peace and order.
Beatrice (“Tris”) Prior is from an Abnegation family, born to the humble, grey-wearing, vanity-eschewing community-service class of Chicago. But on the day of the big test to determine her dominant personality trait, she discovers that she is actually a Divergent—someone with more than one dominant trait. In addition to being selfless, she is also smart and brave, and this makes her a dangerous aberration that threatens the order of this carefully segregated society. Divergents are not tolerated, and so she must hide her specialness and pretend to be just one thing like everyone else.
When the time comes to choose a faction, Tris chooses Dauntless, the brave warrior class. (And who can blame her? Running around, climbing everything in sight, and leaping joyously from moving L-trains, the Dauntless look like the only people in this joyless world allowed to have any fun.) Soon she’s undergoing the peer hazing and training ordeals that are obligatory for the protagonists of these sorts of stories: making friends like fellow new recruit Zoe Kravitz, making enemies like smarmy Miles Teller, and drawing the attention of drill sergeants both dangerous (Jai Courtney) and dreamy (Theo James).
Divergent is very much a glass-half-empty/half-full kind of movie. On the one hand, Tris’s training montages are duller and less imaginative than almost any other I can think of: Harry Potter gets broom lessons and wand-dueling, Katniss Everdeen gets holographic archery targets, Ender Wiggin gets zero-gravity laser tag, but Tris gets…boxing lessons in a dilapidated tunnel? On the other hand, however, the very low-tech minimalism of these scenes lends them a gritty realism and charm: when Tris gets punched in the face in the training ring it looks like it really hurts, and setpieces like a nighttime game of Capture the Flag through the ruins of Navy Pier provide some simple but exhilarating fun. This middle portion of the film—in which Pris must prove herself worthy of her place in Dauntless while hiding her true nature—is the best Divergent has to offer. It may be utterly formulaic, but at least it’s a comforting, satisfying formula, generating some good will that is regrettably sacrificed when the third act spirals into hurried and melodramatic nonsense.
Shailene Woodley—who proved herself a good actress in The Descendents, and an excellent one in The Spectacular Now—manages to make us a little more emotionally invested in all of this nonsense than we would otherwise be: she has a thoughtful vulnerability and an unassuming strength that lends Tris more complexity and depth than the character on the screenplay pages probably deserves. If Woodley’s Tris does not quite have the screen charisma and surly strength of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss in The Hunger Games franchise—a comparison that is impossible to avoid—so what? God knows there are too few female protagonists in adventure movies of this kind, and plenty of room for more than one type.
It is for Woodley’s sake, mostly, that I wanted to like Divergent so much more than I actually did, but I never quite got over one basic problem: the dystopian world being built in this would-be franchise is preposterously stupid. I haven’t read Veronica Roth’s novels, so perhaps it all works better on the page than on the screen, but here it doesn’t work at all. If Divergent took place on an alien world, perhaps we could buy this claptrap about a society divided into factions according to overly simplistic traits. But as an evolutionary version of our own world, set a hundred years or so later in a still-recognizable Chicago, it is impossible to believe that any chain of events could result in a societal order this dumb. “I don’t want to be just one thing,” Tris’s chiseled love interest confesses to her. (No shit, buddy: who does?) I suspect the mind-blowing realization that humans can all be more than one thing is the big truth at the heart of the Divergent franchise. We can all be smart! We can all be brave! Don’t let anyone put you in a box! It’s a teen-ager’s fantasy of a terrible future, a straw world constructed so it can be blown away by some shallow, superficially empowering lines from a self-help book. This isn’t a dystopia: it’s a dumbtopia.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on Divergent for this: perhaps it is simply the natural consequence of the current marketing boom, in which young-adult novels have increasingly become fodder for adult entertainment. Adult science fiction may reflect the larger problems of society as a whole, but a lot of YA fiction just reflects the personal anxieties of the teen-age years: the fear that transitioning into adulthood means conforming to something you don’t want to be; the need to retain your individuality and “specialness;” the desperate desire to both find acceptance and stand out from the crowd. (If the faction selection scene in Divergent feels a lot like the sorting hat scene in Harry Potter, there’s a reason for that: it’s because the quest for identity and purpose—and the fear of being misunderstood and mislabeled—are both universal among adolescents.)
There’s nothing wrong with fictions that tap into the fundamental concerns of adolescence, of course, but—as Hollywood continues to raid the YA shelves for material—they’re not all going to work for those of us well past puberty. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games—to name two YA franchises I happen to think do translate better—are working through a lot of the same emotional ground as Divergent, and their worlds and situations are not necessarily any more believable. But they’re more rewarding: they manage to pack a lot of other insights, plots, and pleasures around their basic, archetypal metaphors. Divergent feels like it has distilled adolescent fears into the most obvious and simplistic expressions, and then couldn’t manage to do anything particularly interesting with them.