The Divergent series – as of today on its third film – has long been guilty of presenting a morally irresponsible message to its young audience. The PG-13-rated series involves a dystopian future wherein the populace lives inside a ruined and walled-off Chicago. The people have been cordoned off into clearly-delineated classes, based on a vaguely defined in-born character traits. Dauntless (soldiers), Amity (peacemakers), Erudite (intelligentsia), etc. The threat arises when the heroine, Tris (played by the fierce and talented Shailene Woodley), discovers that she possesses several of those in-born traits simultaneously. This makes her “Divergent,” and, again vaguely, a threat to society.
The first two films, however, deal very directly with Tris’ growing confidence as a result of living with the Dauntless. She suffers, you seem from a common teenage identity crisis, which is symbolized by the various “Factions.” Many teens ask themselves what they should be as they grow, and the Divergent movies offer seven potential life choices. As it turns out, Tris elects to live with the soldiers. She trains, becomes stronger, becomes proficient in fighting and weaponry, and adopts the bully-like mentality of the soldier class. The message here is clear: Your teen identity crisis can be solved by feeding yourself into the war machine.
The first film, Divergent, sells this pretty hard. The second film, Insurgent, ups the ante by poising the world on the brink of violent (read: righteous) revolution, putting Tris and her Dauntless peers in the position of holding any possible salvation. The Erudite intelligent people hold all the cards only when it comes to sinister scheming.
We now come to Robert Schwentke’s Allegiant, the film where said revolution finally takes place, and we finally see the true message of the series and a whole presented in stark relief: No matter what the system is, violent revolution is the answer. In short: Violence will solve all your problems. This is a theme we have seen in many YA films lately, and it’s chilling to think of the repercussions of their irresponsible messages: Physical strength, military mentality, and bombs undo all the world’s evils.
Allegiant doesn’t bother to cath you up in the events of the previous films, but I will: At the end of Insurgent, Tris, Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Christina (Zoë Kravitz), and Peter (Miles Teller) learned that the entire faction system was set up by an unseen had from outside the wall, and the revelation of Divergents was actually the result of some sort of grand experiment. In Allegiant, we learn that the experiment was a centuries-long effort to rid humanity of genetic impurities. A sinister executive played by Jeff Daniels has been looking to see if walling off genetically-altered people (those with in-born faction-ful character traits) can “outgrow” their programming and become “pure” again. Once enough “pure” people arise, we can live in harmony again in the shelled-out remains of Earth.
The Daniels character is seen as a villain, of course, as he has control over Chicago, even to the point of releasing memory-erase gas on the populace and starting fresh whenever he needs to. Although it’s never explained why this world needs purebloods when the genetically-altered seem to be surviving just fine, I assume Daniels’ plan is for the good of humanity. There only seem to be two functioning cities in this world, so shouldn’t strengthening the species’ genetic stock be of the utmost importance?
As it turns out, no. When Tris and Co. figure out what’s going on, their only recourse is to end the experiment altogether, and let Chicago be free (Of course, when they were free, war broke out. But whatever). They achieve this with guns, shooting, and no thought as to the consequences of their actions.
This, of course, has been a common theme of many recent YA films. The Hunger Games dealt with this, The 5th Wave dealt with this. Brave young women take up guns, discover a scandal in the system, and think nothing of murdering people to take down the system. Said young women often make a speech about how violence is wrong, usually right before they proceed to murder underlings and masked goons without a second thought.
Why is war the solution, I ask with no small degree of pacifist frustration? Fighting and violence and death seems to be the only way to topple any set system. No thought required.
I understand a lot of these films are taking their moral and visual and thematic cues from the politics of constant war in the Middle East. Violent revolution can be the only solution. Military glorification comes naturally. Of course, I subscribe to the old adage about seeing every problem as a nail if you only ever own a hammer. We seem to be mentally preparing our youth – our young girls especially – for soldierly duties with these films. Take up arms, because you will indeed encounter a broken system in the future. You can fix it with fighting. This is an insidious glorification of war that seems to be pointing a generation toward bloody conflict. Negotiation, intelligence, and ant sort of non-violent solution is suspect.
Heck, even the Harry Potter films seem to glorify violence to a degree. When looked at a certain way, the Harry Potter films are about a young boy who is inducted into a magical world of wonder, only to be eventually pumped and primed to murder an evil wizard. No negotiation. No conflict of ideas. No egalitarian diplomacy. Just grow to age 17, then murder a man.
There have been a few films in the YA canon that present pacifism as an appealing option, of course; not all of these things are hawks. The Giver is about what should be sacrificed to maintain the peace, and how the memory of war should be enough to keep people on their toes. Ender’s Game is about how the war machine robs children of their humanity, and how compassion may be the only thing that can save us. The only problem is that The Giver and Ender’s Game both tanked.
The Divergent Series is more of a symptom than a problem, but it’s the most obvious indicator of how too many recent feature films shamelessly militarize youth, and see war as a necessity for freedom. I would hope kids are bright enough to see through movies like Allegiant, but many of these films are enormous hits, so it’s hard to see if audiences see their heroines as heroic or tragic.
Allegiant seems to be garnering bad reviews, and even fans are turning away (as of this writing, the box office numbers are surprisingly low). Perhaps – and we can only hope – that this will mark the beginning of end for military-flavored teen dystopia epics.
Top Image: Summit Entertainment
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at@WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.