Saturday, March 22, 2014

Divergent [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (K. McFarland) review

At times, Hollywood has been called a "dream machine" both reflective and a trend-setter with regards to the happenings in (American) society.  I go back to this image of "Hollywood as dream machine" to help me understand the "why?" of current film, Divergent [2014] (directed by Neil Burger, screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, based on the first installment of a trilogy of novels by Veronica Roth [IMDb]) the latest book-to-movie entry of the currently popular (to the point becoming formulaic) YA (teen)-oriented "girl-hero-based" Post-Apocalypic genre.

Now please don't get me wrong.  That a story has become "formulaic" does not make it necessarily "cheap" or "shallow." Instead, if anything, it means that the story has "struck a chord," and somehow speaks to a society (or a portion of a society) in a way that other, less successful stories have not.

English author J.K. Rowling's enormously popular Harry Potter series of YA (teen)-oriented books (eventually made, of course, into an enormously popular series of movies, the last two installments reviewed here [1] [2]) opened the door to a renaissance in (and mainstreaming of) YA (teen)-oriented magical / fantasy literature not seen since J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy of the 1930s-40s.  And, of course, riding this "Harry Potter" wave of renewed interest in YA (teen)-oriented magical / fantasy literature, Tolkien's LOTR was made into an enormously successful trilogy of epic films, with Hollywood perhaps "over reaching" in trying to milk the magic once more, indeed, three more times, with the current attempt to turn even Tolkien's much smaller, earlier, indeed, arguably "pilot" novel The Hobbit into a trilogy of epic films as well (the first two installments [1] [2] reviewed here as well).

Then American author Stephanie Meyer's wildly popular Twilight Saga of YA (teen) oriented (and here specifically TEENAGE GIRL ORIENTED) books built on J.K. Rowling's success with two crucial changes (1) she introduced the "teenage girl heroine" to the genre and (2) she moved the story's setting to the United States.

First, by making a "once average teenage girl" Bella (played in the subsequent wildly successful films by Kristen Stewart) the heroine of her story, Meyer filled an enormous hole previously existing in that genre: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series at least had Hermione (played in the films by Emma Watson), but TOLKEIN'S LOTR and The Hobbit were, if typical of their time, SUPREMELY EMBARRASSING TODAY in being ALMOST ENTIRELY DEVOID OF SIGNIFICANT FEMALE CHARACTERS, this despite (I suspect) a far larger number of teenage girl readers (and potential buyers of books...) than teenage boys. (I would suspect that today, teenage girls would be far more likely to "listen to their parents and stay home and read" than teenage boys, who'd prefer "playing video games" or otherwise "doing something").

Second, by moving the story to the United States (in the case of her Twilight Saga to the "foggy" often "forgotten hinterlands" of the American Pacific Northwest), Meyer both tapped into our national narcissism (the term American Exceptionalism doesn't exist for nothing...) but also, frankly, made it easier for other American writers (and then Hollywood) to crank-out variations on Harry Potter's and the Twilight Saga's characters and themes.

And boy did our nation's largely East Coast based publishing machine and West Coast based Hollywood JUMP on that American "collective unconscious" gravy train:

Hunger Games [IMDb] (the first two movie installments reviewed [1] [2] here), set in a post-Apocalyptic U.S. (75-years after a brutal civil war), though largely in "Appalachia," the once average heroine being Katniss Everdeen (played in the film series by Jennifer Lawrence)

Beautiful Creatures [IMDb], set in a small town near Charleston, South Carolina (involving a society of "light and dark" though not-race-based witches), the once average girl heroine being Lena Duchaness (played in the film by Alice Englert)

The Host [IMDb] (the movie reviewed here) set in a post-Apocalytic U.S. (following an alien invasion) but mostly around the state of Texas, the once average heroine being Melanie (played in the film Saoirse Ronan).
Mortal Instruments [IMDb] (the first movie installment reviewed here) set in a rainy Harry Potteresque New York City (involving a parallel shadow/spiritual battle between forces of light and darkness), the once average girl heroine being Clary (played by Lily Collins).

Add to this the most "Harry Potteresque" series, that of Percy Jackson [IMDb] (the latest installment reviewed here), set in New York (rather than London) and involving Greco-Roman mythology rather than the world of pre-Christian Celtic based witchcraft, in which the lead character is the Harry Potter-like (male) Percy Jackson (played by Logan Lerman) with a Hermonine-like friend named Annabeth (played by Alexandra Daddario).

To this rather impressive list we now add the current film Divergent [IMDb] set in a post-Apocalyptic U.S.A. though largely in Chicago, Illinois (100 years after a devastating war plus attendant environmental catastrophe), the once average heroine being Beatrice / Tris (played by Shailene Woodley).

Further, neither did these stories simply share a "magical" or otherwise "fantastic" setting and basically the same "once average" hero or heroine.  ALL these YA (teen) oriented series included other common characters (archetypes) and themes:

For instance, in almost all the cases, the parents "didn't have a clue."  They weren't necessarily "bad" just largely outside the picture feeding again another kind of narcissism... that "nothing really existed before our time..." or, in the post-Apocalyptic variations of the story "the Past" was simply (and conveniently...)  "destroyed." 

Second, in every one of the teenage-girl oriented stories, there was a "dreamy" (often "shirtless" sometimes tattooed) slightly older (but appropriately so), _more experienced_ male heartthrob -- basically Jacob (played by Taylor Lautner) of the Twilight Series.   In the current film, Divergent [2014], the requisite slightly older, "more experienced" heart-throb Four (played by Theo James) keeps his shirt on through most of the film, but (MILD SPOILER ALERT) when he does take it off, he reveals ... one heck of a tattoo ;-). 

Now one could "lament" the potential "exploitative" nature of these films with (1) the authors / film-makers of these stories presuming to take-over the role of parents by marginalizing the parents of the fictional heroes of their stories and (2) more or less obviously (if somewhat "turn-about" amusingly ;-) pandering to the "lesser" (er ... "more lustful") "angels" of the predominantly teen-age girl audience that they are targeting.

BUT LETS ALSO BE FAIR: If these YA (teen)-oriented stories seem to target teenage girl readers (presumably because they read more than teenage boys) the YA (teen)-oriented stories targeted to boys are often based on comic books and video games and often involve heroines (where dressed) dressed head-to-toe in spandex/leather and toting machine guns spraying all sorts of "bad guys" with lead.   I've written about this as well, describing this black-leather clad heroine with a REALLY BIG GUN as basically "the Jungian Anima let out to play" (Sucker Punch [2011], Underworld Awakening [2012], Resident Evil: Retribution [2012], The Avengers [2012]).

ALL THIS IS TO SAY is to say that when a PARTICULAR CHARACTER TYPE or STORY-LINE starts APPEARING OVER AND OVER AGAIN that character type or story-line seems to have "STRUCK A CHORD" with the society's "Collective Unconscious" and it's going to remain there until the society gets tired of it.  So when does the society get tired of it?  Well, a good indication will be when it will cease to be to publish books / make movies ESSENTIALLY REPEATING THE SAME STORY (with minor variations).

MY SENSE IS THAT WE'RE NOWHERE NEAR THE END of the popularity of this "previously average young girl asked/forced by circumstance to do great things" story line BECAUSE ... HONESTLY ... RESTATED IN THOSE TERMS, THE STORY-LINE becomes almost a modern day "cinematic apparition of Mary" the humble handmaid of the Lord (Lk 1:38) who exclaims in the Magnificat:

     "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
     For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness,
     and behold, from now on all generations will call me Blessed.
     The Mighty One has done great things for me
     And Holy is is name..."
             -- Lk 1:46-49

In other words, "we've seen this before."  Indeed, in the horror / slasher movies of my youth, it was always "the Good Girl" (we used to honestly call her THE VIRGIN) who remains to defeat the monster.  How?  Often by "crushing his head" with? "her heel" (c.f. Gen 3:15, honestly look at the closing sequence of The Terminator [1984] ...)

FURTHER, if we RESTATE the STORY-LINE in this imagery EVEN THE HUNKY ("DREAMY") SHIRTLESS MENTOR FIGURE BEGINS TO GET INTERESTING ;-) -- He becomes AN "ANGELIC" PROTECTOR FIGURE.  Indeed, often times the heroine's relationship with this "angelic protector figure" becomes "complicated": In the Twilight series, though Jacob protects Bella (and then her daughter) she ends up with Edward.  The other "protector" figures are similar.  It's never an easy thing for there to be a relationship between the "Good Girl heroine" and her slightly more experienced "Protector."

SO THEN, AFTER ALL THIS, how does "the Good Girl who ... comes to do great things" fare in this variation?

Well first, "The Good Girl" (played by Shailene Woodley)'s given name is Beatrice (an evocative name as Beatrice was the name of Dante's inspiration in his Divine Comedy...).  Then in a post-Apocalyptic society that divides itself into five castes (called "Factions" in the story), these being -- The Erudites (the intellectuals, scientists), The Amities (the amiable, hippie-like "granola people" who do the farming for the society), the Candors (who are honest to the point of argumentative, hence the lawyers and judges of the society), the Dauntless (the "courageous" people of the society, hence their soldiers and police officers) and Abnegations (the self-less ... who give of up to the service of the rest) -- she's born into an Abnegation household.

We're told that at least originally, or up until the beginning of the story, the Abnegation caste was given charge of the government of the society.  (As they were deemed "self-less" they were seen as the ideal people to be in charge of making sure that the government / society was run right.

Interestingly, the Abnegations' self-lessness makes them makes them the most Priestly / religious-like of the factions (something noted also by the J. McAleer of the CNS/USCCB in his review of the film).

Well Beatrice (like the Biblical Mary...) is born into this governing / "priestly" caste (The Biblical Mary's uncle was Zechariah, a Priest at the Temple in Jerusalem)

But there are two plot points that have to be added here.

(1) The teenage Beatrice kinda finds the Abnegations' self-lessness "boring."  So when she comes to her "choosing ceremony" (basically the society's "rite of passage to adulthood" not altogether dissimilar _in effect_ to the Jewish Bar Mitzvah or the Catholic understanding of Confirmation ... after celebrating this Rite / Sacrament the person is considered "a full adult" in their respective (religious) societies) she _chooses_ another Caste (Faction) ... the far _cooler_ Dauntless faction.  It's kinda like "serving sandwiches at a parish soup kitchen" could seem to be "far more boring" to a teenager than "jumping out of a helicopter with the 82nd Airborne somewhere in Afghanistan ..."  The "service aspect" is "still there" but it seems so much "cooler" to "serve" with bravado ...

and (2) all other Factions AND IN PARTICULAR, THE ERUDITES (the intellectuals).are kinda resentful of the Abnegations  The other Factions don't really trust them, they don't really believe that the Abnegations are as "self-less" as they've claimed to be.  (Hmmm.... sounds familiar ... ;-).  Added to this is the Erudites' suspicion that the Abnegations are _breaking the rules_ by coddling and even _sheltering_ "the Factionless" (also called "Divergent" ... those who don't really fit into any particular Faction well).

Now it actually makes sense that the Abnegations, the "nice people," would have compassion toward, literally, the "misfits."  But the Erudites, who've come up with this Five Faction system of societal control are irritated.  And so, one of the esteemed professorial heads of the Erudite faction (played by Kate Winslet) tries to stage a coup against the "soft" Abnegations to keep the society "ideologically pure."  How to do that?  Well, Erudites are the society's scientists/intellectuals, not its soldiers.  HOWEVER, being 'the smart people' they can perhaps find means of manipulating the soldiers to do their bidding ...

So this inter-Factional friction is in the air throughout the whole of the story.  But this "big picture conflict" isn't all that's going on.  On the far smaller scale there's what's going on with Beatrice and her family.

Beatrice (played again by Shailene Woodley) takes her test a few days prior to her Choosing Ceremony and finds that unlike what she's been previously (that everyone is simply born/destined to become a member of one or another of the five Factions), SHE actually has aptitudes to fit into SEVERAL OF THEM (to some extent, SHE'S SPECIAL ... on the other hand, arguably, she's also VERY NORMAL as most of us have varied interests and abilities).  Now, in our society, Beatrice's versatility would not be seen as a problem, BUT IN HER SOCIETY IT WAS.  What to do?  The medical technician applying "The Test" to her, simply suggests that she CHOOSE "Abnegation" (she was born in that group) and "no one would know."  But ... it's clear that Beatrice would also "like to be more" than "just self-less"

So ... when she comes to her CHOOSING CEREMONY, Beatrice, SURPRISES MANY (and POSSIBLY disappoints her parents, good, again, basically self-less folk played by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwin) when she CHOOSES to become a "Dauntless" (part of the "brave" warrior caste).

So after the Choosing Ceremony, she goes off with the crazy / "cool" Dauntless folk and her subsequent training ensues.  BUT ... Does she really fit there?  Again, her test showed that she could have fit into several of the Factions, including Dauntless but also Erudite (she was also quite bright) and, of course, Abnegation.  Since she could have been "many things," she wasn't necessarily "the best" or even "top caliber" in any of them.  What to do?  Well this is where her hunky, somewhat more experienced, (I'm suggesting) "angelic protector" Four (played by Theo James).  He's one of the Dauntless' training instructors (hence by definition "more experienced") and he helps her to "get by" / "make it through."

Okay ... she's more or less able to "make it through" as a Dauntless.  What happens now?

Go see the movie ;-)

Again, it's a very interesting story, and only Part 1 of 3 about a "young girl from humble beginnings ... called to do Great Things" ;-)

<< NOTE - Do you like what you've been reading here?  If you do then consider giving a small donation to this Blog (sugg. $6 _non-recurring_) _every so often_ to continue/further its operation.  To donate just CLICK HERE.  Thank you! :-) >>

No comments:

Post a Comment