This week’s derivative new dial-a-blockbuster is Divergent, which stars Shailene Woodley (George Clooney’s teen daughter in The Descendants) as a teen girl living in post-apocalyptic Chicago, where the remains of society have amicably organized into five factions in order to survive against an unseen enemy outside the walls of the city. Watching the movie, which is based on a novel that sold when its author Veronica Roth was 21, is like browsing the shelves at the video store, because almost everything in it seems like something you’ve seen done better elsewhere. Here’s a partial list of films that Divergent ripped off/was influenced by:
1. The Breakfast Club and teen movies in general.
Divergent (as you’d expect of such as young author) is firmly anchored in a high-school conception of society, which is divided into brains (called “Erudites”), student-government nerds (“Abnegation”), jocks (“Dauntless”), special-needs kids who play in the dirt (“Amity”) and chronic truth-tellers (“Candor”). In Roth’s conception, what matters most is finding a clique to belong to because the untouchables of her society are the lost souls wandering the perimeter who have no “faction” at all.
Question: Who thinks about cliques as anything but a dumb high-school thing, much less an organizing principle for humanity?
Divergent even gives each clique its own limited color palette, with the brainiacs using cool blues, the jockish Dauntless in tight, athletic black gear and the rustic, gentle Amity in autumnal hues suggesting harvest time.
Tris (Woodley) learns from a wise older figure she meets while undergoing routine testing that she is special and fits into the Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite factions, which makes her a rare Divergent who is sure to be targeted for elimination by the ruling forces. Harry Potter was the perfect fantasy for kids who grew up over the last 20 years, the generation in which everyone believes they’re special. Divergent even has a magical scene reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat in which everyone picks his or her faction in an auditorium in front of a cheering crowd. Teens love to imagine both belonging somewhere new when they’re getting tired of their family, and being lavishly applauded by their friendly new peers.
Tris, who chooses to join the brave, athletic Dauntless faction, quickly learns she’ll be kicked out if she emerges from training near the bottom of the class rankings. Cue the inevitable scenes of her learning to fight and (as in The Hunger Games) showing us all that 115-pound women are just as strong as the 180-pound men they get into the ring with. Even the clothing of the faction Tris is born into, Abnegation, is gray and loose, like the peasant clothes of Katniss Everdeen’s District 12.
As in The Hunger Games, the film wastes no time getting its heroine into much tighter and sexier clothes, and as in The Hunger Games the girl is yanked away from her family and given a hunky male partner instead, so the two can prove themselves in an exciting series of special-effects-laden fights and battles.
Much of the fantasy element of Divergent is confined to hallucination scenes in which, after being injected with a drug, Tris and friends must engage in combat in what amount to virtual-reality video games. Often, when those simulations end, Tris pops out of the imaginary sequence and back into the testing room she started out in, but then things go wrong and it turns out the testing room is itself a fantasy. This dream-within-a-dream stuff eventually got tiresome even in Inception, but Christopher Nolan did find new variations on a theme, whereas Divergent director Neil Burger essentially keeps pulling the rug out in the same way and expecting us to be shocked every time.
Believe it or not, post-apocalyptic movies prominently featuring major American landmarks gone to waste did not used to be released in theaters every month. Though there were both serious nuclear-fear dramas and cheesy B-movies about post-apocalyptic landscapes before Apes, this was the movie that really launched the category as a reliable subject for a quality sci-fi blockbuster aimed at adults and older children. And Apes also imagined a society divided into instantly identifiable groups — gorillas were the soldiers and police, orangutans the somewhat cold-hearted intellectuals, chimpanzees the honest and hard-working professionals.
image via washingtonpost.com