What Does It Mean to Be Human?Foreword
Each of these big blockbuster movies answers this question in different ways. Perhaps it's a byproduct of our postmodern culture's existentialist angst, but the big-screen movies these days seem to be doing a lot of the following: taking stock of fundamental questions of human nature, civilization, consciousness, matters of right and wrong, etc. If you're watching the action flicks for imagination fodder, you won't be disappointed, but you may miss the overarching plot.
Allow me to invent/define some terms for the sake of this review:
The "plot" is the obvious problem that is directly presented to the audience.
The "sub-plot" is any theme with importance but which may appear to be a distraction at first, since its connection to the plot isn't immediately clear (and if there is no connection, the flow of the movie suffers).
The "meta-plot" is the implicit, overarching theme that the movie makes reference to without ever explicitly addressing. Basically, if you pick out the theme, and ask "what would this cause the characters to be concerned about, or do?" then you have the meta-plot.
Plot: Simba grows up orphaned and has to somehow right the wrongs that his uncle Scar has perpetrated on the African Savannah.
Subplot: Simba's relationships with his father, Nala, Timon/Pumba and other characters.
Meta-plot: the quest to figure out what's important in life / growing up, becoming a man. Whereas the theme is "manhood," the meta-plot could be summed up as "Simba has to discover something in himself (a sense of duty/honor), and/or find his purpose in life, which will drive him to confront Scar, and help him win."
And the import of the meta-plot is communicated more through the subplot than the main plot. If all you're doing is following along CBS-tv-drama-style, you'll know why the characters are going from one place to the next and such, but you won't grasp the significance, and come away with the real message (intentional or unintentional from the director's/producer's standpoint) of the film.
Let's dive in.
**** **** **** ****
The last 4 [not-yet-reviewed by yours truly] sci-fi movies I remember watching all had a common theme, explored in very different ways. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes answered the question, "what does it mean to be human?" through exploring the human-like qualities of the fictional ape characters. Chappie asks the question "what is consciousness?" by exploring the journey of learning of a robot, who rapidly traverses formative childhood and copes with the innate badness of human beings as he "grows up." Jupiter Ascending asks, "what is the worth of a society?" or "what makes life worth living?" and answers it through the parallelism of a jaded teenager who feels like she's wasting her life cleaning toilets, compared to jaded interstellar aristocrats who seem to live for nothing but to keep on living. Lastly, Divergent asks whether conformity is necessary for social stability, and asks if suppressing individuality through human government is a) possible or b) promotes peace, or tyranny.
Each film seems to invite the suggestion that how one responds to struggle is what reveals--or defines--one's humanity, and since without struggle, there is no plot, let's investigate the central struggles of these four films.
Last call for spoiler warnings
|What happens if you take candy from a robot baby?|
Plot: An engineer invents a consciousness-generating computer program and tests it on a robot. Calamity/Hilarity ensues when thugs kidnap his robot and teach it to be a criminal, and a rival engineer at the same company tries to spoil the experiment with hyperbolic levels of aggressive violence.
"You stole daddy's car!" Perhaps one of the strangest scenes in recent film history, not for shock value but because of the juxtaposition of incongruent notions. A humanoid robot exclaiming childlike statements. Said robot throwing a man out of his vehicle. Said robot destroying the vehicle with a baseball bat -- not making the connection that the car that was allegedly stolen was the one the person was driving -- much to the dismay of 'daddy,' a petty criminal who sees the robot as a potential cash cow with which to acquire the money needed to pay off a drug lord daddy's indebted to.
Minor curiosity: the characters "Ninja" (daddy) and "Yolandi" (mommy) are not acting. That's to say that when they left the set, they stayed in character. They played themselves. This was a very weird movie in terms of the casting, but 5 stars for being original. The quirkiness of the c-listers compared to the cliche'd acting of the a-listers (Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver) was crucial to salvaging the movie. Some things are simply done well by amateurs than by professional actors. That's why the wooden "acting" of the real-life marines in Act of Valor was so refreshing. You know that anything departing from cookie-cutter-Tom-Cruise-action is apt to be because of realism, not poor casting.
Chappie is the robot who comes to life because of Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire)'s 'consciousness.dat' file, which he was desperate to test on the humanoid military-police robots in Johannesburg (which must be where director Neil Blomkamp lives or something) which he had engineered and was responsible for overseeing.
The robots have certain abilities preprogrammed, such as recognizing and copying sounds, visual acuity and fluid body movements. But armed with only a rudimentary grammar algorithm and limited word bank, the robot child is totally impressionable and literally needs to be taught, like a child, before he can be more than a curiosity (to Yolandi) or a nuisance (to Ninja).
The trailer caption to this movie (found on IMDB) is nothing like the movie. The teaser set me up to expect a dystopian future where Chappie becomes the only droid to be immune to centralized control by the government, and he fights back in a coup de etat. What the film actually portrays is a preliminary trial of police droids which are employed to great effect against gangsters, but otherwise it is set in modern day with little else changed about normal society.
That's a great thing, because by avoiding this cliche', Blomkamp gave us an opportunity to ask the question, given the assumption that consciousness can be reduced to a software program, of how an intelligent computer would come to grips with human consciousness. No infant stage. It would be an impressionable genius -- so what would happen?
Chappie gets deceived and manipulated and mistreated over and over throughout the course of the film. He's a sympathetic robot, apparently programmed with the instinct to whine as if nervous or scared when he's in a dangerous situation. Repeated petitions of "please don't." He goes from knowing Dev('Deon' in the film) is his creator, to mimicking the gutter garbage who kidnapped him, to being warned by Dev that killing humans is wrong, to being deceived into believing 'daddy' was a victim of crime, in order to be made an accessory to it himself -- to doubting his creator's honesty, to finally rescuing his feuding human friends from death at the hands of another human......so that at one poignant point in the film, Chappie says something like "you humans all lie." He's growing up, beginning to doubt what he's told and choosing to synthesize what he hears in the way that makes most sense, instead of just taking what he's told to believe by everyone at face value. That's what enables him to come out in the end, guns blazing, having decided that you don't kill the good humans, but you don't go out of your way to be gentle with the bad ones.
Vulgarities abound in the film, owing to the choice of casting. Jackman's over-the-top, unbelievably absurd levels of displayed aggression, disregard for human life and bloodlust would probably be upsetting to young people even in the absence of the coarse language. All that said, it's an interesting exploration into the learning habits of formative minds, that should give anyone pause to contemplate how they act in the presence of children, even infants, given that they are so impressionable and readily given to mimicry, that careless behavior can send them down a tragic path -- as can the omission of important information, or incomplete education. There is a scene where Chappie throws morning stars at armored transport personnel, because 'daddy' had lied to him that it wouldn't kill them, only make them fall asleep. When he stands over a bloody man begging him to please not do it again, even in the faceless robot chassis you can get the sense that Chappie feels shame and betrayal because of his actions and the deception that led to it. He shouts angrily at 'daddy' in the getaway car. I think that's the scene where Chappie says 'you humans all lie.'
It's a poignant film but it's not something worth subjecting kids to unless they've already been exposed to coarse language and seen a number of violent movies already.
From a Biblically Christian perspective, two things stand out for me:
1. The film doesn't directly claim that consciousness can be reduced to the mere behavior of atoms. In fact, if that was all it were (were all it was?), then the whole notion of teleportation in movies like Star Trek would be challenged, because simply recreating a person doesn't ensure continuity of their consciousness. It might be a person who behaves just like Captain Kirk but it's not the same Kirk, because he died when his atoms were disassimilated. The ending of the film involves a transfer of consciousness, which implicitly requires that there is something more to it than just the activity of matter. Chappie offers the question, 'what if consciousness and thought are separate -- that thought can be performed by various mechanisms, be it brain or computer, but that consciousness is not limited to a specific form of hardware?' In some way, this has to be the case, because we don't believe a person's consciousness ceases to exist when one's soul is separated from the body.
2. The caricaturized hyperbole of a 'bad-guy' in Jackman's character, as well as the lying, self-interested, violent Ninja et al, serve very aptly to juxtapose Chappie's impressionability and freedom of self-determination with the innate badness of human beings. Nothing says 'total depravity' quite like a guy who abolishes the police force and attempts to murder his colleagues with a flying tank just so he can feel important for his contribution to the company's military assets. On the other hand, Chappie's perpetual trust of both his creator and 'daddy' and 'mommy', that lets himself be tugged in one direction and then the other, is an equally apt example of how little we really do control our own destinies. We are strongly influenced by outside sources, and just because we don't know/realize that something is bad doesn't make us innocent, and we have to come to grips with the harsh nature of reality and, like Chappie, ascend beyond the naive trust of mere men, and lay hold of a belief of greater permanence.
|The humans are the apes and the apes are the humans.|
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Plot: Caesar is ruling his happy ape kingdom but when humans who survived the gene-plague come looking for a hydroelectric dam in his forest, the apes and humans have to decide whether they will help each other, or fight each other. Irony alert: each treats/sees the other side like animals, and each considers themselves more civilized.
I don't recall Rise, the prequel of this reboot, being quite as poignant. It was much more of a sci-fi / action film than this movie, which was by necessity wholly different in terms of plot. No foreboding or silly messages of "we think we can control nature but we're wrong." Instead, it plays out like a classic "first contact" flick, but instead of aliens, we have apes -- or is it humans?
See, the genius of the writing for this film is that it employs a reversal, where the setting introduces us to the thriving ape colony in the Redwood forest above San Francisco. The apes are the main characters, the humans are the 'local color,' to provide something interesting to generate conflict with. The apes have a code: ape not kill ape. But can ape kill human?
Koba thinks so. He's your classic racist "us-versus-them" character. He's a bonobo, I think -- a different type of chimp. It enables you to distinguish him from Caesar. Whereas Caesar is contemplative, even stone-faced, tight-lipped, Koba is shifty, grimacing, and generally more menacing in every scene. He takes issue with Caesar's decision to help the humans, and hatches a plan to take over.
The review could be over at this point. Here we are, ascribing premeditated murder and insurrection, not to mention slavery or genocide (which it would have been if it weren't for the PG-13 rating which led to not a single human death of a civilian onscreen. The only people who die are "jerks."), to an ape. He's already behaving in ways that only humans do. And this is the point. It intentionally puts humans on the receiving end of dehumanizing propaganda and makes us the victims of a charismatic leader's attempt to subjugate our race sheerly on the basis of animosity toward us for being human. Guilt by association. Guilt by blood. As if we inherited inferiority from our parents.
I think movies like these are intended to make you think out of the box, and attempt to sympathize with groups of people you can see represented in the human characters. See the Apes as invading European or Arab conquerors, and think to yourself, this is what it's been like to be black, in recent history, or, this is what it's been like to be a Jew, in recent history. Seen as an animal, and treated like one. Rounded up and put in cages. Victimized by set-ups like where Koba accuses the humans of killing Caesar and burning the ape village, to rile up support for going to war against the humans. Or is the person reading this too young to have been taught in school about how German and Arab propaganda accused - and still accuses - Jews of eating babies, and various other horrible deeds, to falsely justify violence against them? Scarcely a century ago in this country, a black boy getting accused of whistling at a white woman (Emmet Till) could be a death sentence. This asinine sectarian violence is aptly modeled by the representation of "us" as the apes and "them" as the humans. Won't someone stand up against the tide of hatred and plead for peace?
There's a great amount of irony in the fact that the ones who are dehumanizing people are portrayed as animals. Doesn't that just beg the question, "who are the real animals?"
That's what Caesar offers when he's recovering from Koba's assassination attempt, as he speaks with his son:
Caesar: I always think... ape better than human. I see now... how much like them we are.Captain Obvious, here: Being human is an insult, a derogatory notion to the apes in the film, just like being an animal is nothing to be proud of to us humans. Caesar is metaphorically representing us, who are the ones who are supposed to be wondering, "oh man, we've been acting like animals!"
The notion of tribalism is what makes this movie a runaway success in representing inter-cultural violence across the globe, across centuries, in my view.
A final note on poignancy: the line 'Ape not kill Ape' is taken as a founding principle for Caesar's tribe. Koba repeats it when he attacks Caesar the first time and Caesar nearly beats him to death. Caesar relents, which Koba rewards by staging his faked assassination, to encourage the apes to go to war with the humans. When Caesar recovers, he goes to confront Koba. Hanging on top of a building, after a fight near to the death, Koba says to Caesar, "Ape not kill Ape." Caesar's reply was,
"Koba...you...are...not...ape." And lets him go, to fall to his death.
It shows that what it means to be an ape was not to be hairy and not to be human. Apehood was thus revealed by Caesar to be a character trait, an attitude of mind that pursues dignity and righteousness, and does not merely assume that one possesses those things by birthright.
And thus, the film answers the question, "what does it mean to be human?"
|An unintentional(?) commentary on the sanctity of life.|
Plot: Mila Kunis shares the same genetic sequence as a woman who just died, giving her, per transgalactic human law, legal right to the title deed to planet earth. This makes her a target of rival aristocrats who attempt to usurp her inheritance, and for that matter, kill her. Also, "Soylent Green is people!"
I never saw the film (by the same name?) that ends with that line, but the synopsis indicated that it's a classic where people's remains are repackaged and sold as food--soylent green. I wasn't quite expecting the movie to go where it did, but "I called it" by the time Jupiter (Mila Kunis) visited her "daughter."
Backtrack to explain: The three main characters beside her military escort (Channing Tatum) are the children of the woman who shared Jupiter's exact genetic sequence before she died. The "recurrence" of that gene sequence endows, by law, the owner to inherit everything owned by the person who died.
Not surprisingly, this makes the children very upset, most of all Bal'em (Eddie Redmayne), who inherited Earth as a consequence of his mother's passing. His ownership is now in jeopardy simply because of this inconvenience. He therefore attempts to reclaim his inheritance by kidnapping Jupiter's family and threatening to kill them if she doesn't sign over the title to earth. But that's not before his brother Titus (Douglas Booth) attempts to gain the same legal right to earth through a galactic wedding to Jupiter. Once wedded, he can kill her and collect her inheritance.
Why all this extreme violence? It's evident that there is a very strong central government somewhere in the cosmos, which is nevertheless very limited, so that beyond certain basic legal rights, the government doesn't interfere in matters of its citizens killing each other or their subjects. And that's probably because the distant bureaucracy wants the same things Jupiter's "children" all want: endless resources of time.
Kalique is the first of the children to encounter Jupiter, and she explains that the "most precious commodity in the universe" is time. More appropriately, eternal youth, as achievable through resetting the genetic clock of one's cells through absorbing a special solution that causes one's body to return to its "optimum physical condition."
It just so happens that, despite human civilization persisting for billions of years, no one has figured out a way to create this magical fluid without human sacrifice. Earth, and many planets like it, exist solely for stellar aristocrats to feed their greed and lust for more time, in the service of which all of the inhabitants are promptly murdered ("harvested") and spun into glowing blue units of "Regen-X", which is what resets the biological clock. There is absolutely no concern for the lives of the humans who are killed. They are seen, in the grand scheme of things, to not matter at all. They apparently aren't legally protected, and are seen as just so much property, allowed to build their planetary civilizations only so that their population genetics will stabilize and allow a homogeneous "stock" to be synthesized from them.
The directors/producers made a great choice to not show even the slightest hint of concern in the characters of the Abrasax children. Their disregard for the unethical nature of it is one of the strengths of the film, which gives it a Twilight-Zone feel. At one point in the film, where even the most bored viewer is forced to connect the dots, Titus explains that Regen-X comes from people (hence the 'soylent green is people' reference). Jupiter reacts in shock and disgust, and Titus manipulates her emotion to deceive her to marry him (as aforementioned, part of his plan to get the title to Earth). The fact that he would use what he knows will strike Jupiter as a shocking notion, merely as a ploy, where he doesn't care about it at all, reveals that his uncaring attitude toward the people whose murders he profits off of is not for ignorance. He knows exactly what he's doing and knows enough to know it's wrong, and simply doesn't care. Getting rich off of selling the youth elixir is all he cares about.
The singleminded bloodthirsty pursuit of riches, in men who are indicated to be tens of thousands of years in age, is a glimpse into a possible answer to the question of what life would be like if fallen, sinful people lived indefinitely. Jupiter Ascending answers the question by suggesting that those with the riches and cunning to obtain the youth elixir will seek to live just for the sake of living. A hollow experience where the only pursuit is to have more.
That underlies the climactic scene where Eddie Redmayne's character is attempting to kill Jupiter, and speaking to her as if she's his mother, he says:
"Is this familiar? It was like this last time. Do you remember what you said? I remember...You said you hated your life. You begged me to do it."
The opening scene in 'modern day' has Jupiter cleaning toilets and saying "I hate my life." That was presumably done flippantly, as a sigh of irritation. The 40,000-year-old woman Bal'em murdered, when she said it, would have meant something much more profound, I think. A life where all you live for is to own as many planets as you can, so that you can commit as many genocides as you can, so that you can sell as many regenerative serums as you can, so that you can get filthy rich and do nothing but live and live and live with nothing to do but to wait until the next civilization grows up so you can murder the lot.....one would be surprised if a person with a conscience wouldn't hate their life.
The comparison is not done by accident. It is an intentional irony, wherein which we get a sense that Jupiter has come to terms with that she does not hate her life, but has something to live for. It is not the only parallel between the subplot of Jupiter's life in New York and the subplot of how Bal'em murdered his mother out of his greed to profit from the harvest of Earth.
The beginning of the film almost seems incongruent. If you watch rags-to-riches-by-way-of-alien-benefactors movies like these, you get used to the scene-setting in the beginning being there for the sake of getting used to plot elements before the really crazy stuff happens and things begin to move very quickly. But in this case, we are treated to a long and apparently irrelevant subplot, where Jupiter's family is poor, and her male cousin tries to convince her to sell her eggs to make money to help the family. Just prior to the lizard aliens kidnapping the family, the uncle is confronting the boy and shouting "You don't treat your cousin like chicken!" while beating him with a pillow. Again, the juxtaposition of this, and its perseverance as a subplot, is not accidental. In fact, it is what ties the whole thing together.
Jupiter's cousin was trying to profit off of the sale of her body, as if she was a commodity. He was treating her like a chicken, not a person. Jupiter 'hated her life' and couldn't see a purpose in it.
Jupiter's galactic "brethren" hated their lives and saw no purpose to it but trying to profit off of the sale of many other people's bodies, as if they were nothing but commodities. They were treating them like chickens, grown only to be culled, and not as real human persons.
There is an amazing parallel between the sale of harvested humans to supply the lifestyles of their jaded dehumanizers, and that of the sale of fetal tissues from babies murdered by their mothers so that they can maintain their preferred lifestyles. But given that this is a hollywood blockbuster, I can only assume that this connection was purely accidental.
In the end, the film raises questions about what human nature would naturally lead society to become, if it were left to progress endlessly. It also asks, on an individual level, what purpose there would be to life if this world were all there was: would we get tired of living, so that we would beg to die? In the Biblical view, God making us mortal when we sinned in Adam is a mercy, that prohibits us from living indefinitely in our fallen state. This movie explores a few reasons why this is indeed merciful.
But on the very intimate human level, the film raises questions about the worth of life. Is there really a point to hating your life if you clean toilets for a living? Is life ever so cheap that it can be traded off in return for monetary gain, or the doldrums of indefinite existence with no goals to strive for? Maybe having something to fight against, and rise above, gives more meaning to existence than we give it credit for. Wouldn't we rather be frustrated by a troublesome life than to truly hate our lives because it exists solely to perpetuate itself, and on the backs of millions of slaughtered innocents, at that? The movie asks us to have a bigger perspective and to appreciate the things we do have. It's certainly possible to be jaded and empty when you're rich, so if you're feeling burdened, don't despise your poverty. There are hidden blessings therein that only reveal themselves with time.
What about the idea that humanity could've existed for a billion years? Wouldn't we have evolved into something different by then? This is one of the inconsistencies in evolutionary belief. We're supposed to accept constant change as the driving force in biology but then at the same time accept that this force simply doesn't result in change for some creatures, even for eons. Within the fantasy universe, I imagine the genetic modification technology evidently possessed by humanity would be the explanation for how come genetic drift would never result in speciation by natural selection.
But there's actually a simpler truth that can explain that: macroevolution simply doesn't happen (by the way, 'macroevolution' was a term coined by evolutionists). No matter how much time you give an organism, the population will never evolve into a fundamentally different kind of creature because the current propaganda, that the mechanisms observable today would give rise to new species given enough time, is simply bogus, an article of faith for the academically deluded. Totally novel mechanisms are required to generate new information in the genetic code, and there is no such mechanism in nature. So, provided that a population wouldn't die out, it could potentially persist for billions of years without change. That's not the difficulty you should be having with the sci-fi in this movie.
The real difficulty is the question of error catastrophe. That is the problem of how much mutation a population can tolerate before it corrupts the gene pool totally and broken genes proliferate to such an extent that the organisms eventually all die out and the population goes extinct.
There are no known mechanisms by which to generate new information (there's no necessity that none exist, but it's evident at this point that if one did, it certainly does not have so much influence as to be responsible for the diversity of biological life on earth), although there are some that duplicate it (called 'duplication events'), transfer it horizontally (viruses, or bacterial horizontal gene transfer), and those that destroy it (mutations, death of organisms). The general trend in the genetics of a population is for information to be degraded or lost, not generated. In other words, over time, there will be less and less genetic diversity in a population. In grade school, we learn about how similar genetics are to blame for the prevalence of double-recessive diseases, and consequently, with less diversity, you have more and more disease, resulting from broken genes. Eventually, the prevalence of mutants overtakes that of healthy genes, and if the mutation rate is sufficiently high, the population's vigor declines until it goes extinct. This is what faces humanity at this very moment. Our race won't live forever and traverse the galaxy. There may be only 300 generations remaining until our genes are so polluted by broken copies that we cease being able to live, or have children, absent massive intervention to reinfuse our genome with healthy diversity. I find it very interesting that this is indicated by the Bible about the Millennial Kingdom:
"No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, Or an old man who does not live out his days; For the youth will die at the age of one hundred And the one who does not reach the age of one hundred Will be thought accursed." - Isaiah 65:20Aging is connected to our genes. Even a modification to the action of telomerase could be enough to produce remarkable changes to longevity. At the moment, gene therapy is nowhere close to providing a possible means of artificially inducing functional immortality. It may be practically impossible because of the complexity -- how do you retrogress the aging of every cell in a person's body by any medical procedure? Indeed, for the moment it seems that humankind couldn't possibly persist for an eternity, absent divine intervention. Who would've thought?
|Conform or die.|
Plot: A girl with more uniqueness than the average person finds it difficult to conform to her post-apocalyptic society's mandatory categorization protocols, that denies people individuality and freedom of choice. Consequently, tyrant-wannabies on a power trip attempt to take over society by -- how else? -- mass mind control of the law enforcement class, and the main characters have to find a way to stop a democidal bloodbath.
Why'd I say 'democidal' and not 'genocidal?'
Demographics: income, occupation, marital status, number of children, age, IQ, national origin, to some extent skin color, height, weight, social status, religion, political views, etc etc
Genetics: what is inherited from your family history by virtue of your birth:
* to some extent, skin color
* to a lesser extent, culture and religion (these arguably fit into both categories, because they can be passed horizontally and vertically, as memes and traditions)
A 'genocide' is properly an attempt to erase an apparent "race" of people from existence: The Hutus killing Tutsis in Rwanda, the Germans killing Jews in WWII, Saddam Hussein killing Kurds in Iraq, and on and on it goes.
If the republicans in one city decide to go round up the democrats and burn them in their homes, that would not be genocide because no one is born republican or democrat. Technically this is democide. This is an uncommon term, so genocide is generally still used. But now you know a little more background. Genocides tend to be done on the basis of ancestry. To that effect, America's history as a melting pot is a strong influence, in my view, in terms of mitigating animosity between different groups. If there's a lot of "mixed" people in a society, it's hard to justify artificial separations between "blacks" and "whites," etc.
I waited to see Divergent for the same reason I waited to see the Hunger Games. It seemed marketed toward tweens, with one good-looking female lead and one good-looking male lead in their late teens or early twenties, forced into a cliche'd rom-dram. (get it? 'dram' and 'com' have the same vowel sound?) With bullets. But as it turned out, it too had redeeming qualities.
If Chappie dealt with consciousness, and Apes dealt with human nature, and Jupiter dealt with the purpose and value of life, Divergent dealt with a mixture of each. It addresses the freedom of self-determination within the human sphere, and questions the utility of mass conformity, especially imposed by society, to an arbitrary ideal enforced by people with their own limited understanding of human nature, and a fear of individuality.
For something targeted toward young people, like The Hunger Games, it does a good job at presenting the conflicts without being either too direct (and cliche'd) or too confusing. One of the oddities of the civilization described, which seemed to me doomed to fail from the outset, was the "faction system," which was introduced at the very beginning as something that the city founders put in place explicitly for the purpose of preserving peace. Dividing people up into homogeneous groups seems like a guarantee of tribalism and sectarianism, but I suppose I'm very conservative in my outlook and prone to spot the problem with such arbitrary divisions right away. Consequently, I spent a lot of the time pondering how in the world a faction system could possibly make sense. What I settled on was that there was a semi-logical separation of powers in the film.
One group was generous, and had the responsibility of governing.
One group was inclined to honesty, and had the responsibility to manage the judicial system.
One group was brave, loyal and obedient, and was the police force and military.
One group was smart, and had complete control over research and development.
One group was easygoing and had the responsibility over all farmed food.
Any one of these has the power to interfere with the attempts of any one of the others' to take over one of the other groups by coup. Only Abnegation has the right to order official government acts, to which the others should obey. If the military is its own faction, none of the others can use armed force to take over one of the others without the military faction intervening. Only Erudite has high-tech capacity but it can't use it militarily against the others, and the military depends on its technology in order to be up to date. If the farmers are attacked, they can cut off the food supply. And the Candor faction, with their obligatory truth serum, can't deceive the other groups about their intentions. The only weakness in this system would seem to be if any of the factions other than Abnegation decides "hey, you know what? Let's ignore what the government says and do what we want." When one faction decides to disregard the weak central government, the politicians are powerless to persuade it otherwise.
And then, in the plot, what happens is that the scheming faction decides to take control of the military, at which point its intentions can't be thwarted by the faction system as defined. How does this occur? Collusion. The two factions are united by hatred for a group of people with no faction: the Divergents, individuals who violate the faction system by being uncategorizable -- they don't belong to any one group. They're too unique, and the other groups see them as a threat.
And that's where we get the meta-plot for this film.
Shailene Woodley, a Jennifer-Lawrence-lookalike, plays a girl named Tris who comes of age and must choose which faction she wishes to be a part of, permanently, in adulthood. There is pressure to pick the one you were born into, but a bit of the individualism theme comes through in the beginning, where Tris decides to join up with the Dauntless faction, which members look like they live a life of constant excitement. Once there, she meets Theo James, a James-Franco-lookalike, named "Four," who later takes an interest in helping her fly under the radar so that her divergent personality won't be noticed by the proctors of an entrance exam that lets them see how she responds to, and overcomes, her fears.
Despite that the faction one chooses is supposed to become one's new family, the leader of new recruits, Eric, announces that those performing at the bottom of the bell curve will be cut, and presumably outcast to become 'factionless,' people with no place in the ordered society. This becomes a subplot dealing with peer pressure to fit in generating anxiety in those who don't feel like they 'measure up.' One of the low performing recruits attempts to murder Tris, but upon failing, and facing banishment, commits suicide. This has parallels in very strong conformist societies today, such as Japan, where Samurai-era notions of honor lead people to prefer death to social disgrace or embarrassment. Good discussion question: should we ever let other people's opinions of us influence us to the point of hurting ourselves to avoid the shame of not fitting in?
The film provides a good introduction for preteens and young teenagers, into the psychology of bullying and social ostracism. It makes it abundantly clear that the reason Divergents are in danger of death is because the powers that be see them as a threat. A threat to peace and stability, they claim, but really a threat to their paradigm. That paradigm is a self-serving one, where the Erudite leader (Kate Winslet) has convinced herself that the technocrats should rule because they're smartest, and she needs an Other to blame for the loss of peace, to provide an excuse for the seizure of power. Enter the dogma that Divergents are public enemies, which as a founding presupposition underlying the Erudite worldview, cannot be easily dispensed with. This shows up in the sequel Insurgent.
Hitler blamed the Jews for social ills and used them as an excuse for his actions. Post-Civil War America cast black men as the Other, and based on superstitious anxiety over "them" "taking our women," would lynch any misfortunate black man suspected of having been too friendly to a white woman. Otherism shows up in every genocide, with the Hutus calling the Tutsis cockroaches, with Sunnis and Shiites calling each other apostates and on it goes. If you're going to make a power grab, and you need to kill some people, find someone to blame first. Then, every atrocity you commit, you can accuse the Other of having perpetrated. Remember, "the great masses of the people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one." (Hitler said that).
Thus ends the film Divergent, where the conformists, the Dauntless who fit in just like everyone else, were injected with a neurochemical radio transmitter that made them behave like so many robots, and mindlessly follow the orders to invade the village of the Abnegation faction, round them up, and, it is implied, kill them all. Of course, clever heroism prevents the endgame, as the ringleader herself becomes a victim of her own suggestibility.
When the Dauntless recruits regain control of their own mental faculties, they flee. The film Insurgent relays the propagandistic usage of that fact by the Erudite leader: the attempted slaughter is blamed on the Divergents, and used as a ploy to rally support for a campaign to purge them from society.
It's funny how the most useful commentaries on political terrorism aren't coming from films marketed toward adults, but to young adults, these days.
The sequel doesn't introduce too many new themes, but its central plot point culminates in a monumental reversal of fortune, which echoes the dichotomous conflict portrayed in the book of Revelation. By the very end, the very people who are perceived to be the enemy turn out to be the good guys, and the ones who see themselves as the champions of peace, and in control, turn out to be the bad guys. The people the wicked believe they're serving ("the founders" / God Almighty) turn out to be their enemy -- or rather, the wicked turn out to be the enemy, to their obstinate dismay.
Mrs. Erudite is attempting to open a secret message from the Founders, but needs a Divergent to do it. Somehow this never gets her to question her hapless disregard for their lives, as she kills one after the other in the pursuit of opening the box. Why would she need a Divergent to open it, if they're the enemy? (Why is the Antichrist murdering Christians and Jews, if he is God and God is Love?). Somehow the incorrigible never second guess it, because they don't want to admit they were wrong. Rather pride than shame, isn't that how it goes?
The message from the Founders was stunning: the society which had been going for 200+ years was an experiment, and the appearance of Divergents would be the proof that the experiment worked: They are the future.
I was very keen on seeing how Mrs. Erudite would respond to that. When faced with a stunning paradigm conflict like that, the reprobate are so far gone that they still won't submit. True to form, the directors have her order the box hid, so that no one can hear the message, and she orders Tris and Four to be executed. But one deus ex machina later, and she's the one being executed in prison while she stares listlessly out at the horizon, in remorseless disbelief.
That's not just a movie. That's reality. There have been glimmers like that all through history, where the ones persecuted as the enemies by the State have turned out to be a) the heroes or b) on the side of Good, after all, and the drama won't fail to deliver when the whole world is in on it at the end of this age. We're going to be chased, hunted, hated and murdered, in the name of pursuing peace and justice and stability, but in the end we will turn out to have chosen the right side, and it will be too late for the real outcasts to do anything about it, when Perfect Truth stares them in the face and says, "Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity."
The arrogant guy from Erudite looks a lot like a younger Matthew Perry
Tris's dad is a Bruce Greenwood lookalike.
Ok I'm done.
Hope these reviews were interesting. They'll be the last for a long time. I can't do anything concisely, it seems. 7,000 words. Now it's time to focus on academics. Expect shorter posts in the future, not so much to do with current events. Maybe on isolated theological topics.
~ Rak Chazak