Earlier in the day our kids invited me to join an action figure battle. My son began with a screaming frog that would build an army with only its voice. One soldier at a time, one shrill call at a time. My daughter formed a small battalion of medics. Insurmountable as a whole, you see, because if any one character was wounded, the others would step in at once and heal. That easy. My base was equally postmodern: an Iron Can controlled remotely by Iron Man. A Lego scout cruiser that launched into dubstep drive instead of warp drive. An energy shield powered by dice. Then I watched Divergent with my wife.
It is difficult to say which setting was more contrived: the five social divisions as detailed in the film, or the three-way brawl as created from scratch by two children and their space opera-geek father. As a writer and proud dad I would like to claim that our afternoon offered more preposterous rules and counter-intuition, but that might not be true.
For those readers not familiar with the Divergent plot, try one of these reviews (for example, Claudia Puig’s takedown for USA Today: “ironically for a film about non-conformity, it adheres to the playbook rather slavishly”). The only point we will add is the entirety of the dystopia: characters no longer carry wallets, amuse themselves with cell phones or check out hardbodies online. The Erudites are so tied up with thinking–and the Abnegations so occupied handing out food, the Candors so busy being candid–that a quick round of Xbox is out of the question.
Tattoos being the one exception. In the future there will be ink but no viral cat videos. And good riddance.
That the viewer spends so much time silently questioning logistics is unfortunate, because there is a great story inside the implausible totalitarianism and teen angst gone supernova (research opportunity: the number of viewers aged twenty and up who walked out when Tori said “You don’t fit into a category, they can’t control you”). If it takes a cast of beautiful Caucasians to offer up a YA metaphor for the caste system, so be it. Contrary to expectations, Shailene Woodley does not simply remove a pair of eyeglasses to reveal that—voila—Tris has been gorgeous all along. And rarely is a team of soldiers or law enforcement officials so open on the subject of fear. Indeed, in Divergent, the mark of successful warrior is one who does not shed her phobias too quickly or easily.
It is a familiar, engaging tale of resistance, done almost right. And that is why the viewer takes the repeated missteps so personally. The five-faction system is not just a house of cards, but an inverted pyramid of cards, glued together only by focus-group, age-specific symbolism (the plot owes its very existence to the fact that teenagers delight in stereotyping, but cannot stand being stereotyped in return). It is so regimented the narrative practically halts itself. Among our many questions: Once Tris chooses a faction, she chooses forever? And can never again see her parents? By law? If she fails in her training she will be cast out, forced to eat scraps from the street? And how exactly does that help stabilize the regime?
One more: why would an Abnegation ever marry another Abnegation?
The film tries to preempt our cross-examination of why? why? and why?. Enter the over-thinking Erudite, who faults human nature and our struggle for sovereignty: “The system removes the threat of anyone exercising their independent will.” But is the state-sponsored Aptitude Test not an official effort to quantify human nature into the five broad categories? And is the Choosing Ceremony not an official endorsement of independent will? If the answers to both questions are yes, then why are we here again?
There are two sequels in the works, and—though I have not read the books—it is a safe bet that the third film will see the entire system collapse. If so, credit the humble laws of gravity, not the end result of great character development and storytelling. If there is a message to writers here it is this: build us a new world. But live in it before we do. Walk around, kick the tires, have a Diet Coke. You just might find you filled the place with tripping hazards.