Dystopia done right

Divergent is a leaner meaner young adult flick

Divergent is set to replace The Hunger Games as the next giant young adult novel-based franchise and based on this first outing I think it has a shot. (It also has no competition either.) A great shot in fact — it’s leaner and meaner than the first Hunger Games flick and has the added bonus of being politically trickier. If Ayn Rand wrote a YA novel this would be it. Admittedly that’s simplifying things a bit but the film’s premise is every staunch right-wing conservative American’s worst nightmare.

Based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling series (expect the second and third installments over the next couple of years) this first chapter opens with the usual wordy though thankfully not too complicated setup and synopsis. Sometime in the sorta-distant future America is living out the remnants of a catastrophic world war. Chicago was let off lightly with most of its infrastructure intact the remaining citizens having built an enormous fortified security wall to surround the city. The film hints that there are evil forces lurking outside the walls but we never see them.

To preserve a sense of order and purpose citizens are divided into groups. There’s a hippy-dippy group devoted to growing food a group of elites preoccupied with science another gang of crazies that act as a sort of defacto military and the lowest on the rung (of course) the empathetic social worker types. What else…. Once you pick a group they take the place of your family and without one you’re homeless.

Enter Tris (Shailene Woodley) the child of social workers. Upon entering adulthood she chooses to join the security team to her parents’ despair. It’s also dangerous: an aptitude test delivered by a futuristic guidance counselor tells her that she’s a “divergent” meaning she has the qualities of all groups combined. This makes her a threat to the state where all citizens are placed in narrow categories and any and all differences are quickly stamped out.

Tris like all teenagers has a lot on her plate: she has to avoid the suspicions of Jeanine (Kate Winslet) an evil bureaucrat who suspects her secret and young hottie Four (Theo James) whose dark and mysterious ways are only rivalled by how sweet his tattoos are. Further plot machinations are revealed and hinted at but I won’t spoil the details.

Like the continued fears of communism and socialism and how they’ll stamp out our precious rights and freedoms Divergent imagines a world where like Atlas Shrugged government order equals fascist rule and the elimination of choice. Nietzsche super-humans are a world-class threat as they crassly represent independent thought and action.

I’m selling Divergent a little short; part of what makes the film fresh is its holistic conception of the sci-fi superhero and people in helper professions are just as reviled in the future as they are today. For a big budget tent pole flick it’s far more fascinating and fun to examine than you’d expect and like all good sci-fi it’s eerily plausible and convincing.

The film’s supporting roles are uniformly strong including Winslet’s sideshow mirror take on Hillary Clinton. (Complete with unflattering blazer and skirt.) But it’s really Woodley’s show and she does an admirable job running through a gauntlet of emotions taking her from zero to hero. Director Neil Burger ( Limitless The Illusionist ) stages the film in broad strokes with vast real spaces and cityscapes that feel lived-in and navigable. The dystopian aesthetic is familiar (crumbled buildings test tubes and machinery) but has a vintage sci-fi tone (think Logan’s Run ) that should give it longer life than the typical modern blockbuster.

Fans of the series will come out in droves but newbies to the Divergent universe may find themselves converts as well. This is dystopia done right.