Divergent is the most recent entry into the burgeoning post-apocalyptic, young adult, female warrior sub genre of science fiction filmmaking. This series—Divergent is the first of a four film movement—chronicles coming-of-age “Tris” and her efforts to come-of-age in a world where all peoples living in a post-apocalyptic Chicago are split into five factions based on their primary personality traits. This spliting supposedly maintains order, but of course, where would the drama be in a world where order is maintained and everyone is happy?
Tris has been raised in the faction that values selflessness above all, but she doesn’t really fit in there, so she longs to leave her family behind to make her life with the more courageous sect. Trouble brews when Tris finds out she doesn’t really fit into any one sect though. Nope, she’s “divergent,” displaying aptitude for all five factions.
Divergent separates itself from other similar post-apocalyptic, young adult, female warrior franchises in its decision to set its action in a decrepit city instead of in a more rural environ. If you enjoy looking at pictures of ruinous modern urbanscapes, this is the movie for you. Perhaps future installments will take the action out to the briefly glimpsed natural areas surrounding the city, but if I see those films, I wouldn’t mind seeing more crumbling concrete and rusty carnival rides. There is something fascinating about imagining how the world we’ve built will look many, many years from now. (Honestly, anything is series can do to separate itself from other similar films is welcome.)
SPOILERS abound from this point on.
Divergent‘s divisions between kinds of people is interesting. There are six types of people in this world:
1) Erudite – the intelligent people, they are scientists
2) Amity – the kind people, they are farmers
3) Dauntless – the brave people, they are warriors
4) Candor – the honest people, they are law-makers
5) Abegnation – the selfless people, they are like a religious order devoted to simplicity and care for others
6) The Factionless – the people who failed to fit into any other groups, they are homeless
I don’t know who is making art or repairing streets in that arrangement, but from the looks of the city, no one.
Abegnation is tasked with governing the city, because supposedly they are the ones who do things for others instead of themselves. The Erudite want to be in charge, and, in an attempt to take over by discrediting the Abnegation leadership, they circulate rumors that the Abnegation leaders abuse their children. This is proven to be true. Dauntless, while strong and brave, proves easy to manipulate. Whichever faction is able to convince Dauntless of the rightness of that faction’s cause is able to bend Dauntless to that faction’s will.
This troubles me. The film depicts science as evil, religion as abusive, and the military as stupid. (The law-makers and farmers don’t really factor into the story much, but when they do they are depicted as full of talk and slavish respectively.) Seriously, the film doesn’t feature a single good scientist or a single intelligent warrior. The conflict in the film is over who gets to control the military. Whoever has Dauntless on their side wins.
Tris’ character arc accomplishes this feat. She is raised Abnegation and becomes Dauntless. She prevails because she is able to use the fighting techniques she has learned to defeat the Erudite. Even her parents are a picture of this marriage between religion and the military. It is revealed that her mother was raised Dauntless, and she saves Tris using her hidden combative skills. Tris’ father proves invaluable at one point because he is a true Abnegate and willing to sacrifice himself when it matters.
But let’s give the movie the benefit of the doubt and choose not to believe that it was crafted to advance the Rove agenda. The film is also interesting for its unwillingness to box anyone in. Tris wishes that she could belong wholly to a single faction, but she is “divergent,” and no matter how hard she tries, she is made for more than that. In a world full of online quizzes that promise to tell us which brand of blue jeans most exemplifies our true selves, Divergent‘s contention that a human is an expansive entity is welcome.
Writer and speaker Peter Rollins is fond of pointing to Dr. Who‘s sentient TARDIS as an apt metaphor for the human psyche. On the outside, the TARDIS is simply a blue police box. You can measure its dimensions, pick it up, and knock it over if you want. However, on the inside, the TARDIS contains an infinity of possibilities. It is anything but measurable. The TARDIS, Rollins explains, is just like a human being–it is an infinity you can walk around.
I like that, and I think beneath its derivative exterior and problematic depiction of particular kinds of people Divergent likes that idea too. I wish it gave all of its kinds of people the benefit of the doubt. I wish it was a bit more generous toward all. So I’m going to do that for it. This story was written by a person and translated for the screen by people who I choose to believe really believe the best about the rest of humanity. They are more than what we see in this movie, so if you see it, try to focus on the good that’s there. Imagine the more that could be.