Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Ghoul Versus The Divergent Series: Divergent (Part 1)

What Makes You Different, Makes You Dangerous... THAT'S a great message for tween girls!”

After the past few months of reviewing horror movies of wildly varying quality, I thought it was time I get back to the other major focus of this blog: young adult fantasy movies. With the Hunger Games saga nearly done for, it seems clear Divergent is primed to take its place as the Next Big Thing. All of the elements are there: a much beloved book series with legions of rabid fans, a superstar actress in the making in the form of Shailene Woodley, resident hunk Theo James, and a production value that seems to treat the property with respect.

The movies are based on the Divergent trilogy, written by Veronica Roth. I haven't read them yet, but I know they concern a rebellious teen girl rising up to fight the power in a standard post-apocalyptic dystopian future where people are divided into different groups. That is, of course, a very broad summary as I've read they focus on character issues and societal aspect much more than anything else, but that hasn't stopped with it being CONSTANTLY compared to the Hunger Games. A quick online search will yield just as many articles saying how it's a Hunger Games ripoff to ones saying it totally isn't.

The film rights to the novels were bought by Summit Entertainment, who was VERY eager to strike gold again after their Twilight Saga films made them a couple of bucks. They had a rather lackluster 2013, as their previous attempts at recapturing the young adult market with Warm Bodies and Ender's Game didn't exactly set the box office on fire. They recruited writer/director Neil Burger to helm the first film, a wise choice as he's yet to make a bad movie in his career. You mileage may vary on that, but I've personally enjoyed everything of his I've seen, ESPECIALLY the amazing 2006 film the Illusionist. How good was that movie? He got a good performance out of JESSICA BIEL in it.

Unfortunately Burger wasn't also tapped to write the script, that honour went to writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor. Daugherty isn't held in the highest regard in the movie world, having co-written Snow White and the Huntsman and the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, neither movie earning much praise for its writing. Taylor has had a far better reception, in addition to her acclaimed script for the movie Hope Springs she's an Emmy-nominated writer for her work on the nuclear hot Game of Thrones television show. Definitely a fair pedigree of talent involved in this one, so let's see how it all mixes together with A Ghoul Versus The Divergent Series: Divergent!

We open with some beautiful shots of a devastated Chicago, which is confusing because I thought this movie was supposed to take place in the future? Oh wait, it is, my bad. They probably should have chosen a different location for this to take place in, it's really hard to tell with that city. As the camera pans around the ravaged buildings, you can really see how two straight movies of Michael Bay bullshit have REALLY taken its toll on the former metropolis. Life still continues on the streets of the city, as we're shown groups of people all dressed in identical colours of clothing. A young woman named Beatrice “Tris” Prior narrates us into the scene since that's the ONLY POSSIBLE WAY to convey information anymore, saying the City is the last place left in the world after the war. A group called the founders built a wall around the city to protect the survivors, as well as dividing them into five groups to “keep the peace”, hence the different coloured clothes. Group roll call!
  1. Erudite: the smart ones who value knowledge and logic, and appear to have all the kush office and science jobs. They like the colour blue.
  2. Amity: the farmers, who value kindness and harmony and are always happy. They work in yellow and red.
  3. Candor: all about that honesty and order, they are the law and order of society. They wear black and white.
  4. Dauntless: who function as the police and protectors of the City as they are brave and fearless. Their colour is all black.
  5. Abnegation: the selfless who are dedicated to helping others, they favour all gray. 
We learn there's also a group called the Factionless, people that don't fit into any of these convenient archetypes. They're homeless, for some reason that isn't explained. I could point out how these groups sound suspiciously familiar to the houses in Harry Potter, right down to the smart group wearing blue and the kind ones wearing yellow, but I'm trying to keep this review free of cynicism. Tris is of the Abnegation faction, who also have run of the government. They are led by a man named Marcus, who is played by the incredibly awesome Ray Stevenson, a man who never fails to bring his A-game. Tris' father Andrew works alongside Marcus on the ruling council in an undefined role.

The montage of the factions over, we finally get to meet Tris, who is of course Shailene Woodley. After a decade of acting on television, she was more than ready to step into the spotlight and has earned critical acclaim in every movie she's done to date. She's getting a haircut from her mother Natalie, who is played by Ashley Judd. Oh. Joy. SHE'S in this. Let's just say I'm not a fan of her work and move on. Tris is nervous because it's the day she takes the test that'll determine what faction she belongs to, which she is very torn about. She's worried she'll have to leave her family, while on the other hand she's worried she'll have to stay Abnegation as she's not exactly enamored with their mindset.

We get an example of this as she is chastised by her older brother Caleb for not helping an older woman carry her groceries, something an Abnegation should do without a second thought. This is rather amusing as Caleb is played by Ansel Elgort, who would go on to co-star with Woodley in the tear jerking smash the Fault in Our Stars. This does help to explain their off the charts chemistry in that movie, since they'd basically been working together nonstop for the majority of 2013. Caleb takes her to the building where the test is being administered, as we see long lines of the factions standing outside. The faction system is revealed to be not all perfect when Tris witnesses one of the Candor bullying some of her fellow Abnegation. She tries to intervene but Caleb stops her, which is rather contradictory to his message of helping people just a minute ago.

The Dauntless show up for the test via train, recklessly jumping out instead of waiting for it to stop. Tris watches them with great admiration, giving a not so subtle clue as to which faction she wants to be a part of. We get the details of the test, that if a person taking it gets a different result than what they want they are permitted to choose which faction they'd like to join. Uh, what's the POINT of the test then if you can just choose where you want to go? Why would anyone NOT want to join the kick ass looking Dauntless? Tris enters the room for her test, which is being given by a Dauntless woman named Tori. Tori is played by the badass Maggie Q, a very logical choice to play a brave and fearless character.

The test involves sitting in a technochair and drinking a small vial of liquid, which transports her into a room full of mirrors. Part of being Abnegation involves abstaining from looking at mirrors, but she can't help herself, which results in things getting WEIRD. One trippy sequence later she ends up tackling a wild dog to save a little girl, which results in a frantic Tori snapping her back to reality and ordering her to go home. Tris, confused, asks what her result was. Tori tells her she tested for Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless, which is something called Divergent.

I'm confused, how is EVERYONE not Divergent? I get the test is meant to hone in on your defining characteristic to choose your placement, but you mean to tell me a Divergent is rare? Wouldn't every teenager in the world test the same way, since at that age you're just a jumbled mess of hormones and conflicting thoughts? Going even further, what about when you mature and become open to new ideas? The film's clearly stated that one you make your choice it's permanent, but that doesn't account in the slightest for human growth. Are all the Factionless Divergent too, since their brief description of “doesn't fit into one of the pre-established factions” LITERALLY DEFINE what Divergent would be? How in the world does one test for order but not logic? I suppose you could make the case the kids have been conditioned from their upbringing to think a certain way, but as Tris just proved it's not always effective. It's magnified even more when the Dauntless are the coolest kids at the party, wouldn't EVERY SINGLE Amity kid want to be one of them? This is a sign I'm going to be asking a TON of questions in this one.

Tori orders Tris to go home and tell her parents she tested for Abnegation only, which is the result she'll enter into the database. She refuses to expound upon what any of this actually means and kicks Tris out. That night at dinner Andrew chides her for leaving the test so early, as it will reflect poorly upon their faction which is currently under a smear campaign by the Erudite, who think THEY should be running the show. They're currently levying an allegation against Marcus that he abused his son, causing him to defect to another faction. This is treated as a HUGE deal but isn't given any other explanation other than telling us the Erudite are the bad guys. After the dinner Caleb tells Tris tomorrow at the choosing ceremony she needs to think of her family, but also needs to think of herself. This is a very nice bit of character development for him, giving him some much needed depth to the cardboard cutout he's been so far.

At the choosing we're introduced to the head of the Erudite, Jeanine Matthews, played by the incomparable Kate Winslet. She condescendingly talks to Andrew and Natalie about the nasty rumours plaguing Marcus, Natalie sniping at her that she knows she's behind him. MRRROWWW! The choosing involves taking a knife, cutting your hand, and dripping blood into a bowl adorned with the symbol of whatever faction you wish to join. This is HORRIFYING because I only see one knife, and I really hoping they're dipping it into some kind of sterilizing solution between cuts because otherwise that is DISGUSTING. We sit through a montage of choice after choice until it's Caleb's turn, and he shocks the world by choosing Erudite. OH SNAP!

This is also confusing because why is Caleb testing the same day as Tris despite being older than her? I kind of assumed that once you hit a certain age you underwent the test, but there he is. Tris is next and chooses Dauntless, her parents looking more aghast than they were with Caleb's decision. Tris runs off with her new faction to board their train, meeting a new friend in the form of Christina, a Candor turned Dauntless. Christina is played by Zoe Kravitz, making this the second Kravitz to star in a young adult blockbuster franchise as her father played Cinna in the Hunger Games. She was also in M. Night Shyamalan's dud After Earth, which we'll be getting to very soon. The train takes them near a rooftop that they have to jump off to get on, introduced to one of the leaders named Eric. Eric is played by Jai Courtney, who is one the fast track to bland action hero stardom with roles in the fifth Die Hard movie as well as upcoming roles in the new Terminator and Suicide Squad films.

Eric says in order to join Dauntless they have to make another jump, this time off the other side of the building without allowing them to see what they're jumping into. He asks who will be first, Tris volunteering after no one steps forward. She walks to the edge and peers down, seeing it's deep down into a hole in a lower building that is surely death. She jumps anyway, landing in a giant net. She's lifted out by the aforementioned Teen Dream Theo James, here playing a character nicknamed Four. This is James' second major movie, his first playing a character in the last movie of the abysmal Underworld series. Wait, it's NOT the last? They're making ANOTHER one? Fuck my life. Tris is almost immediately taken with him thanks to the magic of Insta-Chemistry, and I can't say I blame her.

After the rest of the new blood makes the jump, Four announces himself as their instructor. They get settled in and eat dinner, the recruits sitting together at a table with Four. Tris tries to talk to him but he's very standoffish to her because he is GRUFF. Things segue into life around the Dauntless base, called the Pit. Many training montages follow, given some weight because the initiates who aren't cutting it will be kicked out to become factionless. Tris turns out to be the worst in her class, which is a nice change of pace from how these “Chosen One” type of stories usually go. To take her mind off this, Christina suggests they go get tattoos, a trademark of the Dauntless.

At the tattoo parlor Tris spots Tori working there, but finds her as unhelpful as ever. She ends up getting a tattoo of three birds on her chest, Tori telling her she made a mistake by choosing Dauntless. Tris trains harder and starts to get slightly better, but is still ranked very low on the board that shows the progress of everyone. Four's defenses slip a bit as he gives her pointers on how to improve, while Eric is revealing himself to be a sadistic asshole. This comes to a head during a knife training session where Eric makes Tris stand against a wall while Four throws knives at her, which earns her a lot of respect among her fellow initiates.

Well, all except one. There is Peter, the Candor who was bullying Abnegation at the beginning of the film. He's been a total prick to everyone, but especially Tris due to her former faction. He's played to perfection by Miles Teller, who co-starred with Woodley in her other major teen romance movie the Spectacular Now. Geez, is there anyone in Dauntless she HASN'T dated?! Yet another of this cast poised for bigger but not necessarily better things, he will be playing Reed Richards in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. Teller shares a news report that Tris' parents are ALSO being accused of abusing their children like Marcus was, taunting her over it. Things only grow worse as we see Jeanine arrive at the Pit for a meeting with the Dauntless leader, Max, which seems ominous. Max is played by an almost unrecognizable Mekhi Phifer, who is barely even in this thing.

Al, one of the other recruits, wonder what she's doing there. Will, the know-it-all former Erudite of the group, speculates they're meeting to hunt down Divergents. Everyone scoffs at this, as there's NO WAY Divergents actually exist. Geez, did you people not read the contract for the movie you signed up for? This scene is nice because it's our first HINT at a plot existing, considering we're almost an hour in and virtually nothing has happened. That's not really a complaint because I haven't been bored yet because Neil Burger has kept things moving along smoothly, but that good will can only last so long. Eric continues to be an asshole by pitting Tris against Peter at their sparring training, Four giving her some quick pointers about how to handle herself. They don't work and she gets her ass knocked out. She wakes up A DAY LATER to find Christina and Will standing over her, breaking the bad news Eric has kicked her out.

They don't have time to dwell on this, as they have to report to the train for something called war games. Tris runs after them, boarding the train because what does she have to lose at this point? This almost seems to impress Eric, who allows her to participate in the game. The game is a variant of Capture the Flag taking place in an old carnival, Eric's team up against Four's team. The instructors pick their teams, Four choosing most of the initiates for his side. Tris gets the idea to climb atop a nearby ferris wheel for a better vantage point, learning Four is afraid of heights in the process. She spots Eric's flag in a nearby tower, the initiates deploying to retrieve it.

After a shootout with taser guns, Tris emerges victorious with the flag. This is enough to save her from being cut, as well as earning Four's respect. Everything's coming up Tris! We jump ahead a bit to the Dauntless getting supplies from downtown Chicago, which I think is a good of a time as easy to stop this movie to address some stuff that's been bugging me. I know all of this is probably addressed in the book and isn't vitally important to the movie, but HOW DOES THIS SOCIETY WORK?!

Is it a socialist based economy or is there currency of some sort? There must be since there's homeless people, but why are they homeless? Why do the selfless Abnegation, who RUN the City, ALLOW factionless to suffer like this? Are all the factions just given a set amount of supplies, or are there determining factors? What do the Amity get in exchange for presumably growing the food for everyone else? What purpose do the Erudite serve, since so far we haven't seen a lot of technology? Why was a Dauntless tattoo artist helping to administer faction tests? Doesn't that seem like something the Erudite should be doing?

Who were the founders? Are they still a thing, or did they split into the factions ala the founders of Hogwarts? How were the Abnegation chosen to lead the city? How does the Abnegation council work? Do they have terms? Do the other factions get to vote on their leaders, or is this all handled in house? I could go on like this forever, there is no much unexplained and vague stuff in this film. Aaaand back to the review. As Tris loads up a truck with bags, she notices someone trying to catch her attention with the ol' “shine a mirror into her eyes” trick. It turns out to be her mother, who somehow knows she's Divergent and warns her about the next stage of her training because it involves them looking into her mind.

This is key because Tris must keep her true status a secret at all costs, due to the Erudite hunting them down. Tris figures out Natalie used to be in Dauntless, but before she can find anything else out she's interrupted by a guard. When she turns around her mother is gone, because she must have taken a few classes at Batman Academy. Jump to Tris' test, which is basically the same one she took previously only this time Four is handling it. He explains he's going to inject a serum into her full of neurotransmitters that'll allow him to see into her mind and find out what she's afraid of. The hallucination involves her being attacked by crows, but she easily evades them by diving into a body of water. Just as quickly as it started it ends, Four informing her that's the quickest time he's ever seen for escaping the test. The next test involves her drowning, which she also aces in record time. This REALLY sets off Four, who asks what the result of her aptitude test was. He doesn't believe her when she replies Abnegation, telling her no Dauntless could escape drowning the way she did.

Tris goes to talk to Tori, who is now suddenly more than happy to talk to her because... uh, we've got to get this anemic plot moving SOMEHOW people! We learn about Tori's Dauntless brother, who was killed by the leadership when they figured out he was a Divergent due to his test results. This is enough to scare Tris, who sneaks out of the complex and meets with Caleb at his new job. He is of no help whatsoever, at it appears he's been heavily drinking the Erudite kool-aid. Security comes to grab her but she whoops on them until Jeanine shows up, taking her to her office. Jeanine talks about Abnegation is breaking the laws by harbouring Divergents, asking for Tris' help in maintaining the status quo. You mean the laws that the ABNEGATION control? Tris agrees to aid her, although if you freeze frame the movie just right you can totally see she has her fingers crossed behind her back.

Jeanine drives Tris back to Dauntless, where she's almost immediately captured by three masked men who try to throw her off a cliff. Fighting back, she grabs one of them and is horrified to see it's Al. Four shows up to save her, taking her back to his quarters to stay the night while he sleeps on the floor. So... he's just going to let that attempted homicide slide? He didn't even go back to deal with the students! Isn't one of the core tenements of Dauntless about justice and serving as the POLICE? In the morning she heads out for breakfast, Al actually having the audacity to ask for her forgiveness. “Hey... yeah, totes sorry about that whole trying to kill you thing! We cool?”. Instead of beating the shit out of him like I was hoping, she simply calls him out for being a coward in front of everyone. Later, Tris, Christina, and Will are discussing his actions when they hear a commotion outside their quarters. They go outside to see other Dauntless dragging Al's body out of one of the canals, the people standing around saying he jumped.

Tris somehow feels guilty about this, Four trying to console her that Al would have ended up factionless anyway due to the fact he never would have passed the tests. Tris says she won't either, finally admitting that she is Divergent. Four says he will not let his faction kill her, taking her to the test room to teach her how to fool the tests. This involves the both of them going into his mind to face HIS fears, the point being to show her how to do things the Dauntless way instead of the Divergent way. Through this we discover Marcus is his father, and did in fact abuse him. This also gives us the meaning of his nickname, since he has four fears. Pretty lame, but still better than his birth name Tobias I suppose.

Click here for Part 2!