Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Divergent (2014) directed by Neil Burger

What if the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter took over the world?  This is essentially the unlikely premise of the plodding charm-free Divergent.  Set after some undefined calamity it's been decided by someone that the best way for humanity to get by is to separate everyone into individual 'factions' - the idea being that if everyone just stays in their place things will be a lot more chilled out.

In practice this means dystopian future Hogwarts; you've got the brave protectors Dauntless (Gryffindor); the amoral intellectuals Erudite (Slytherin), and two loser factions that don't figure into the plot ('yer Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs).  There's also the Abnegation factor, who wear all grey and eschew vanity, they're so boring and wimpy that they've been put in charge as they have no lust for power.  Anyone that's not in a faction is considered factionless, a group who seem to spend their day in rags staring at burning bins. Got all that?

Thrown into that mix are the Divergents.  They're the anomalies that don't fit into any of the factions, their very existence a threat to the whole faction system meaning they must be wiped out.  To be honest I don't really understand why they go to the trouble of even telling people they are Divergent - every one we meet seems pretty happy to join one of the factions and keep quiet so why make a big deal about it?  

Anyway, our heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley) is one of these Divergents, making the transfer from the boring loser faction to the exciting one that jumps off trains and gets tattoos.  The rest of the film is a coming of age story as we watch her inner strength and confidence grow - less signified by Woodley's performance than by the amount of volume in her hairdo. As she starts it's flat and lifeless, but by the time she's running around in an ill-fitting jumpsuit and getting into lame fight scenes she looks like she's just walked out of the salon.  You're probably wondering now whether the bastards of Erudite are planning to take over the faction system?  Whether the vim and pluck of one brave, individualistic girl can shake the very foundations of an overbearing system? And whether this girl get mad rutty with her totes hot teacher along the way?

I bet it costs a fortune to make something this ugly looking.
Yeah she does. Obviously. But the film takes a stupendously dull two hours and twenty minutes to get there. Quickly summarised, Divergent's flaws are that it's stupid, boring and cheap.  Perhaps I should give the film a smidge of slack considering that it's so obviously marketed towards a teenage audience. I'm sure they can sympathise all too well with  a character struggling to define their individuality against a system designed to shunt them into pre-decided roles.  The film is essentially an allegory for educational philosophies designed to grind out admin bods, secretaries and manual labourers - a dull future that teenagers quite rightly anticipate with horror.  But this film is so sludgy and samey - obviously produced with an eye on a wodge of that sweet Hunger Games dough - that any support of individuality is laughable.

It's just that this is just so damn boring, a kind of watery pea soup for the eyes and ears. The production design remind me of the kind of thing you'd see clagging up the schedules of the Sci-Fi channel at 10pm on a Tuesday night.  It's all shot with a tranquillised-to-the-point of-unconsciousness directorial style, making the film plods on and on without any urgency, lolloping from one overlong scene to the next.  After what felt like an eternity of people in badly fitting jumpsuits wandering badly lit corridors I checked my watch to see how much more of this I had to endure.  I figured I had to be 90 minutes into it at minimum - not even an hour had gone by.  I felt like a man dying of thirst in a desert, cresting a dune only to see infinite sun blasted sands stretching off to the horizon.  

Not even the eventual commencement of action can ease this cinematic rigor mortis. Woodley (who emerges largely blameless, obviously doing her best with a dog of a script) is completely unconvincing in all the fight scenes.  Perhaps it's the impact-free choreography or the subdued sound design, but the effect is that you're watching the rehearsals rather than the finished product.  Worse are the gun-fighting action scenes.  The guns make a pathetic muted *phut phut* sound and the impacts are so antiseptic it's difficult to tell who's being shot (to the point where the characters usually just say "he's been shot!").  I'm not a gorehound, I don't need big bloody squibs spraying across the screen - but the lack of consequences drains all tension.

Notice that the default expression in these pictures is faintly exasperated boredom. 
The most illustrative part for me was a scene where our characters stand on top of the bg electric fence separating the outside world from their city.  Our heroine asks what's out there and is told there's monsters and chaos just over the horizon.  Briefly my attention perked up "Monsters and chaos?!  That sounds fun!"  Then they shrug their shoulders, turn around and get back to being boring.  They may as well have beckoned to the horizon and said "oh, there's a more interesting film going on over there, but hey, back to the dreary task at hand".

Maybe the book this is based on is better, but Divergent is a catastrophically dull piece of cinema that doesn't even have the decency to be quick about it. If it was trimmed down to 90 minutes (which could easily be done by cutting the largely plot-free training sequences) then it'd still be a crappy film, but at least it would be a brief crappy film.  At nearly two and half hours it's the cinematic equivalent of chewing through a doormat.  I suffered through it so you didn't have to - stay well away.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is in cinemas from April 4th.

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