MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Divergent


DIVERGENT (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Neil Burger, 2014 (Lionsgate)

1. Eruditely She Chooses

Divergent, last weekend’s big box-office hit, tries to take us into the mind of an adolescent girl of the future, confronted with perilous choices in  a scary dystopian  (or anti-utopian) world. It’s based on an extremely popular Young Adult Novel by a writer barely out of her teens, Veronica Roth of Chicago — but, for me, it diverges from Roth’s book too much, and doesn’t diverge  enough from the usual dystopian teen movie routines.

Dystopian stories — whether they’re Nineteen Eighty Four or Blade Runner or The Hunger Games — play on our fears of the present by imagining something based on what we know or what we see in real life already, evolved into something much worse. That’s what Roth did in her novel: she concocted a story that was a nightmarish inflation of a teen-age girl‘s fears — of the future, of college and the outside world, of the deteriorating city (Chicago, in this case), of family problems, of street violence, and of (to stretch a point) government or corporate over-control. The novel is narrated, by its young adult heroine, Beatrice Prior (played in the film by Shailene Woodley of The Descendants), and the movie — should we call it a Young Adult Movie (or Y. A. M.?) — jettisons most of her narration, which means it loses most of its special voice and perspective, and much of what makes it so readable for adolescent readers. What’s left is sometimes pretty dull and predictable and often pure formula — a Hunger Games-style story that leaves you hungry and feeling a bit gamed.

Poet Robert Frost writes of  being confronted with two paths that diverged in a wood (and taking the road less taken). Beatrice, at the story’s opening, has five possible paths  from which to pick the role she will assume and the road she will take for the rest of  her life — forced to choose one of them by the dystopian State. Beatrice, and every other 16-year-old, has to take an elaborate S. A. T.-style entrance exam, and  a battery of psychological tests, which is then, for some reason,  ignored. (The exam tells you what you should be. But you can choose to ignore it and pick some other group, though you then have to stay with that group for life. )

The world she lives in — the place that used to be Chicago — is grim and cloudy and surrounded by a barren-looking desert,  and though her family is  part of the ruling class (her father Andrew is one of the ruling elite), Beatrice herself  is a kind of secret rebel. She’s quiet on the surface, but she  doesn’t necessarily fit in to this strait-jacketed, overly patterned society. Roth imagines a world around her where the city (with the remnants of the old Chicago peeking through, like the El and Michigan Avenue and the river bridges and the Sears Tower), is still somewhat damaged  after an apocalyptic war 100 years ago that boiled away Lake Michigan, made a ruin of part of the city (which was protected by walls during the war), and scorched a lot of Illinois. Here,  everyone is divided into five main groups or “factions”  (and a sixth group of total outsiders, or “Factionless“ untouchables).

Those five factions, named for what are regarded as desirable qualities to avoid another war,  are  Erudite (whose members are very  smart and maybe very snobbish), Candor (which means you always tell the truth), Amity (which means you are a cheerful vegetable picker and peaceful farmer), Abnegation (which means you are self-sacrificing and abhor fancy clothes and needless show), and finally, Dauntless — which means you get to kick ass and run around this messed-up Chicago enforcing the law, diving off buildings, jumping off moving trains, fighting in martial arts tournaments, undergoing endless military training and (your main job), keeping the peace, and stopping undesirables from scaling the walls and invading State Street or Streeterville..

I give you one guess which one of these five roads our gal Beatrice even though her parents — Ashley Judd as Natalie Prior and Tony Goldwyn as Andrew — are big deals  in the Abnegation faction, and even though Beatrice also tests high in three different categories, Erudite, Abnegation and Dauntless. That  triple whammy makes her a Divergent, which is apparently as dangerous and “outside” a science-fictional thing to be as one of A. E. Van Vogt’s Slans, or Philip K. Dick’s replicants — making you a target of this over-structured, all-controlling state.

What’s that you think she chose? Dauntless? By God, you’re a sharpie! (One might even call you Erudite.) Me, I would have guessed Amity, but that would have given us a movie where people pick vegetables and get together for Kumbaya karaokes for two and a half  hours. (Just kidding.)

So it’s dauntless forever for our gal Beatrice (now renamed “Tris“). And before you can day “Katniss Everdeen,” she’s left her heartbroken parents and her smart  brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), who picked Erudite, and she’s racing around what used to be Michigan Avenue with her fellow Dauntless debutantes  (Miles Teller as smart-ass Peter and Zoe Kravitz as anxious Christina and all the rowdy  rest), jumping off trains and buildings and taking lessons from macho fear-mastering teachers Jai Courtney as the implacable, sadistic-seeming   Eric and Theo James as the stud of studs, the mysteriously named Four.

Since this is a young adult female fantasy, Four takes a shine to Tris (Three?) at almost first sight, and keeps helping her or bolstering her morale in the training contests, which seems to give her an unfair edge in the competition. The contests, which nobody apparently told the kids about before they joined up, are games to accumulate enough points to remain Dauntless and not be kicked out into the streets as a Factionless:   homeless outcasts whom not even those do-gooders in Amity and Abnegation can’t help. (At least, not in this installment.)

Before long, Tris and Four start making moony eyes at each other, trying to spark up a little Twilight-Hunger Games magic. And lest we forget, there’s an adult meanie: Kate Winslet as Jeanine,  the slick-talking, disturbing, phonily empathetic Queen of the Erudite. The Erudite want to depose the Abnegations , replace them with themselves, possibly with the help of the Dauntlesses, so they can lord it over the Amities, the Candors and the Abnegations, and do whatever unpleasant things their erudite noggins can cook up. Did Kate Winslet have to take a test to be slotted in  this part? Or did she choose it?

2. Dauntlessly She Jumps

But I don’t want to brand myself as akin to those nasty Erudites, whom we pretty much know while wind up getting their asses kicked. I eventually read the first six chapters of Veronica Roth’s original novel, which the good publicists if Summit thoughtfully supplied with their press materials, and I thought it was not bad, or at least something that should have made a better movie than this one. Not so well written, unfortunately, is the movie’s script by Vanessa Taylor,  and by Evan  Daugherty, who concocted the scenario  for that loony, over-produced fairy tale Snow White and the Huntsman — a script that had previously won an award as one of the best Hollywood unreduced screenplays. (I thought it should have remained a great Hollywood unproduced screenplay. And so should this one.)

Despite the best efforts of director Neil Burger and of his cast and crew, this is an often dull cliche-fest with unoriginal scenes and terse, unexciting dialogue, embedded in huge gray spaces of predictable plotting and flat dramaturgy. The book, by contrast, is smooth, fast, crisply written and emotional — and it benefits greatly from the fact that it’s dominated by Tris‘s voice as the narrator. The story isn’t very original, of course, and it’s basically the same in both book and movie (it may even be the same dialogue). But, in the picture, the moviemakers  try to convey Tris’ inner life by focusing on close shots of Shailene Woodley’s face, as she tries to adjust to Dauntlessness, or gets a crush on Four, or jumps off or climbs up another building or reacts to all the dystopian stereotypes. I don’t think it worked — for the often minimally emoting Ms. Woodley or for the movie, which could really use a lot more voice-over.

Too much of Tris’s narration is cut out, an excision that also jettisons a lot of the story’s emotion and flavor. It’s become a cliche of scriptwriting and script classes to say that narration should always be minimized or cut, that movies should show and not tell, which I think is malarkey. Some great movies, like Orson WellesThe Magnificent Ambersons or Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (which hs both spoken and written narration) or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, have copious spoken narration, and they’re greatly improved by it.. Does anyone believe The Shawshank Redemption would be better without Morgan Freeman?

The three Summit PowerGirl series — Twilight, Hunger Games and this — all reverse the usual teen-action clichés by having a strong girl protagonist, with pretty, sexy males chasing after her. So far, in these films, it’s worked, and it kind of works here too — though a cliché is still a cliché, even if it’s reversed. But Shailene Woodley doesn’t really look comfortable or even comfortably anxious, with the action scenes here — and it’s hard to blame her, because the action is often so flat and unthrilling. Neil Burger, the director of Divergent (but not the writer, unless he‘s an uncredited one), was a very good writer-director on The Illusionist, which was both intellectually sharp and engrossing (and very well-acted by Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton), and maybe he should have written the script here too (or written more of it). But he doesn’t seem comfortable either (maybe he‘s too much of an Erudite).

The other actors may not be in their comfort zone either, and that includes the highly touted leading man and Downton Abbey veteran Theo James, a dark slender Brit with penetrating eyes whose hunk-of-the-century treatment by the press may be prejudicing me against him. James has presence, but his role isn’t that interesting, and the movie’s love scenes (which are more simmeringly unspoken than incendiary) don’t really have much zing.

When we speak of  chemistry in a screen couple, we’re often speaking of the script (and maybe the script improvisations), as much as we are of the actors, and that may be the problem here, at least for me. .

One of the other things that bothered me about the movie: those five categories. Erudite, Abnegation, Amity, Candor and Dauntless. What kind of government would rifle a thesaurus for names like that? And why just those five? They’ve supposedly been picked because they’re the counter-qualities for what was regarded as the five worst threats to the peace and public safety: Ignorance, Selfishness, Violence, Lies and Cowardice. But why stop there, with some people tilling the earth, some walking around telling the truth  and some guarding the walls?

Why not Technician, Fashionista, Comedian, Sportsplayery, Healer, Rock Star,  Philosopher, Well-groomed, Entertainer, Diplomat, Dog-lover, Dopey, Grumpy, Sneezey and Happy? And Moviemaker? Ah well; to each his/her own dystopia. But I hope they let Tris narrate a little more next time. Trust me; it’ll work.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon