I grew up in the 1980s, when teen movies were an enormous moneymaker for Hollywood thanks largely to John Hughes. He created an incredible string of hits that have passed the test of time: “Pretty in Pink,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” were just three of his fun, touching and indelible portraits of what it’s like to be a teenager with all its angst-ridden drama.
But they truly don’t make ‘em like they used to. Flash-forward 30 years, and the biggest teen movies are adaptations of young adult novels set in dystopian societies where the government oppressively crushes every citizen’s spirit and teens have to kill others to stay alive, as in “The Hunger Games.” The “Games” movies are exciting and extremely well-made, but they are also a horrifically dark idea that wring their audiences out with massive tension and very little fun. And why do we focus on setting books and movies like those in future, wrecked societies rather than offering our youth fun or at least positive scenarios that are actually enjoyable to experience?
The new movie “Divergent” opens today, and it’s another futuristic teen epic set in a dystopia and centered on a teen girl who has to learn to kick butt to survive. And sure enough, they’re based on a series of books, this time by Veronica Roth, whose “Divergent” series just magically happened to be released in 2011, a couple years after the “Hunger Games” books sparked a phenomenon.
“Hunger” did it first, and better. They offer a vicious satire of our culture’s sick obsession with reality TV and serve as a bracing warning about where the US could somewhere head if we can’t stop being polarized and agree to get along across party, ethnic and philosophical lines. They also have lightning in a bottle with star Jennifer Lawrence, who in addition to being an action hero with a conscience in their movies, has won an Oscar and been nominated again a year later.
“Divergent” has Shailene Woodley as its central heroine Tris, and it’s obvious that the filmmakers are trying to almost literally clone Lawrence. Woodley is a big rising talent in her own right, with a terrific turn in last year’s under-seen and highly recommended “The Spectacular Now” (an example of what Hollywood SHOULD be giving teens), but she looks like Lawrence’s barely-younger sister and has to follow many of the same moves as her “Games” character Katniss.
In this movie, Tris starts out as Beatrice, a strangely shy girl growing up in a futuristic Chicago that is the last decent outpost of American society after a war in which Tris says the country was attacked. The movie never specifies who attacked us, and why Chicago survived when LA and New York didn’t, and it never clarifies who the enemy was – just that Chicago mostly survived and now has fortress-like walls around it with massive defense systems.
The reason Beatrice is so shy is that she’s a member of a family in the Abnegation division of society. The US population has been divided into five groups: for example, Erudites are the intellectuals, while the Dauntless are the daredevils who enlist to defend society at any cost. As an Abnegator, Beatrice serves the poorest and the faction-less food and basic needs each day while barely getting a glance of herself in the mirror.
The country’s teens get to choose which faction they want to spend the rest of their lives in, and then have to pass rigorous mental and physical tests to stay in their division of choice or risk wasting their lives on the street as begging faction-less people. Beatrice goes for her psych test and finds the administrator ending it abruptly and urging her to keep her results a secret.
Turns out, Beatrice doesn’t fit easily into one of the categories, and has tendencies and traits of three of the five groups. Thus, she could be tagged as Divergent, which the ruling class seek to brainwash or destroy because they’re free thinkers who are too hard to control. Keeping her results a secret, Beatrice chooses to join the Dauntless, renames herself Tris and starts to train in how to be a daredevil protector of society.
But as an evil Erudite leader (Kate Winslet) tries to sweep society for Divergents in order to purge them, Tris has to fight for survival by keeping her secret abilities hidden. For if someone figures her out, there’ hell to pay. The one person who can help her get through it all is a hunky slightly older trainer named Four (Theo James) – and her former Abnegator mom (Ashley Judd), who seems to know way more than one might expect about the evil lurking behind the society.
This may sound like an intriguing setup for the movie, and much of it is. But despite also having a big-budget with slick production design and a well-played music score, much of the movie feels like a cheap knockoff of the “Games” films. Not knowing who the enemy of Chicago was doesn’t help, and the movie doesn’t appear to be setting viewers up for a future revelation either.
Worst of all, the last 20 minutes devolve into a running shootout that looks too much like kids playing Laser-tag than as a high-stakes harrowing escape. And despite the fact that Tris and Four have nailed down the enemy, she delivers a final voiceover monologue saying she’s still on the run from danger – a danger that makes no logical sense given what we had just seen in the film’s proper ending five minutes before.
There are a couple of scenes in “Divergent” that I liked more than those in the “Hunger Games” movies, particularly a dazzling and joyous sequence in which Tris glides over Chicago on what must be the world’s longest, highest and fastest zip line as a final initiation step into being Dauntless. At that moment, and in the story’s initial focus on teens choosing their roles in life and aspiring to do their best for society, the movie has a refreshingly positive feel that made me willing to overlook its day-late, dollar-short other problems.
Morally, this is fine for teens and adults to watch. There are a couple of romantic scenes, but Tris makes it clear she wants to “go slow” and thus avoids having sex with her beau when they easily could have. The only bad word in the movie is the “B-word,” used once and maybe twice in arguments between girl recruits, but the one disquieting element is the violence.
While the teens aren’t asked to kill each other as in the “Games” movies, the Dauntless have co-ed training sessions which mean the guys and gals all have to engage in brutal fights without regard for being gentle to the female gender. Sure, Tris has the last laugh, but it’s no fun watching a girl like her getting punched, thrown and kicked around by guy fighters.
Then again, I suppose those training sequences are like the movie overall: exciting in places, clean enough to avoid driving anyone from the theater, but vaguely disquieting nonetheless. You’ll wind up wondering why no one’s trying to make a John Hughes-style movie anymore.