Movie reviews: Divergent and Noah
Jason Y Ng
Novelist Veronica Roth was just 22 years old when she published Divergent, the first of a sci-fi trilogy featuring a young heroine named Beatrice Prior. The author’s timing couldn’t have been better. The young adult genre had just become the “It” thing in Hollywood, and studios were falling over each other to replicate the commercial success of Twilight and The Hunger Games. It didn’t take long for Summit Entertainment to scoop up Roth’s novel and turn it into the next big franchise.
Directed by little known Neil Burger, Divergent tells the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl who uses both brains and brawn to take on an evil system. If that makes Beatrice sound like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, that’s because the novel is largely derivative of Suzanne Collins’ work. The plot is flimsy and the mythology shaky. It goes something like this: in the post-apocalyptic future, circa 2114, survivors have been divided into five factions based on skills and personality types – Erudite (the smart), Amity (the peaceful), Dauntless (the brave), Candor (the truthful) and Abnegation (the selfless who live in spartan houses furnished by Muji) – all in an effort to maintain a social balance. Roth must have plugged these words right out of an SAT vocabulary list.
You may wonder: How about people who don’t fit neatly into one of the five pigeon holes? Well, that’s exactly what happens to our young heroine. When Beatrice turns 16, she takes an aptitude test like every other 16-year-old (another allusion to the SAT) and is diagnosed “inconclusive.” Misfits like Beatrice – also known as “Divergents” – are deemed a threat to the social order and must be eliminated. To hide her true identity, Beatrice joins the Dauntless brotherhood as a trainee and goes through a grueling boot camp where she falls in love with handsome instructor Four (played by Theo James).
The movie would have been unwatchable if it weren’t for Shaliene Woodley, best known for her break-out role in The Descendants. Woodley's tremendous talent saves the film but the actress is hamstrung by both the farfetched story and her co-star Theo James. Dull and robotic, the British heartthrob possesses only one facial expression and is much more suited for an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue than the big screen. He appears more interested in posing for the camera than playing his part. There is so little chemistry between Beatrice and Four that the kiss scene elicits a collective cringe from the audience.
The strong supporting cast is worth a mention. Ashley Judd gives a heartfelt performance playing Beatrice’s gritty mother and contributes to the few bright spots in the movie. Kate Winslet is a curious choice for the villain-in-chief Jeanine but she pulls it off with gravitas. The last time audiences saw a female dystopian despot was in Elysium, starring an unbelievably bad and almost speech-impaired Jodi Foster. It is no accident that the baddy Jeanine is the leader of Erudite, as religious conservatives (such as Veronica Roth) often regard intellectualism as a dangerous threat to both their faith and society at large.
If you refrain from thinking, Divergent makes for passable, though entirely formulaic and forgettable, escapist entertainment. Any attempt to analyze the story will leave you confused and offended. The in-your-face message to celebrate individuality and denounce conformity panders to the teenage audience but does little for the average grown-up. But none of that will stop the studio from going forward with the sequels Insurgent and Allegiant. Thankfully, Summit Entertainment recently announced that it will neither hire Neil Burger back nor split the last installment into two full-length movies, a convention started by Harry Potter and followed by Twilight and The Hunger Games. At least there’s some good news.
Christian films are a big business in Hollywood. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was a box office bonanza and brought back the heyday of Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments in the 1950s. Son of God, produced by reality show Czar Mark Burnett, opened a month ago and has already yielded a 100per cent return on investment. These films owe much of their success to evangelical leaders and Catholic school teachers who rally millions of faithful to the theater for an evening of entertainment and Christian fellowship.
That brings us to Noah, a US$125 million gamble by Paramount Pictures to capitalize on the conservative movement in America. The story is simple – the Book of Genesis devotes only three short chapters to it. It is said that God regrets the creation of mankind and decides to destroy every living being with an all-consuming flood. But the Lord sees goodness in one person – Noah – and asks him to build an ark to save his family and two of every animal species.
To stretch a 15-second storyboard into a 2.5-hour epic, the studio hires Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) to write the story and direct the picture. Aronofsky has no choice but to make things up. Quite a few things, in fact. In the film version of the story, Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (played by Anthony Hopkins) is a Dumbledor-esque wizard who possesses magical powers and loves wild berries. The famous Noah’s Ark is built not by Noah but a team of bizarre rock Transformers called the Watchers. These creatures, a liberal interpretation of the Nephilim (fallen angels), are so absurdly out-of-place that Paramount Pictures has kept them out of the movie trailers and Google image search. To balance the equation of good and evil, Aronofsky creates super villain Tubal-Cain (played by Ray Winstone), who brings back bad memories of the awful Ivan Vanko character in Iron Man 2. The barbarian warlord killed Noah’s father decades ago and has now returned with a small armed force to hijack the ark. After his evil plan was thwarted by the rock monsters, Tubal-Cain still manages to sneak into the ark to wreak more havoc.
Of course none of that is actually in the Bible, and that’s where the film fails. When a story so universally known is so heavily embellished, the audience tunes out and stops caring. Fabrications, no matter how cleverly crafted, don’t tend to move people. To make things worse, miscalculations like the rock monsters take viewers out of a serious Biblical epic and put them in a goofy sci-fi.
Equally disappointing are the 3D graphics. Noah is not Life of Pi. The animals and birds look cartoonish and the much-anticipated flood scene is anti-climactic. Russell Crowe, who takes the lead role, is not easy on the eyes either. The 50-year-old actor looks like an overweight hobo in the New York City subway. He also seems emotionally detached. Crowe is as uncommitted to playing Noah as he was singing off-key as Javert in Les Misérables.
A master of film noir, Darren Aronofsky is fascinated by the duality of good and evil and the fine line between obsession and madness. The veteran director explores both themes in Noah and sheds new light on the title character and the moral dilemmas facing him. Nevertheless, he overuses his creative license and lets bad decisions overshadow the good ones. The film is nowhere near Black Swan in its edginess and dramatic tension. Instead, it is 138 minutes of drab dialogue and unnecessary plot twists. I’ve never fallen asleep in movies but I was very close to shutting my eyes after watching scene after scene of a disheveled Russell Crowe trudging through mud and beating up bad guys.