This is not exactly the film that the trailers tried to sell. And it’s definitely not the film many critics would have you believe either. They’ve been a little bit rough on this film. Yes, at times it felt like it was sticking a bit too much to the “young adult” formula, but I did find it to be pretty good.
Getting back to the trailers though, what was up with that? I could hazard a guess that they were really trying to sell it hard as a YA romance thing and put as much of that as they could in the trailers because what’s in the trailers is nearly all there is. Then there was the way that the trailers felt just plain cheesy. I did not find that to at all be the case with the film.
The YA Genre
Let’s get the bad out of the way so I can end the review on a more positive note. I’m just cynical enough to realize that this franchise, both the film form of it and the book form are here to cash in on the young adult sci-fi/fantasy fiction phase our society is going through. I’m not stupid, I can see it. And yes, it does have just a taste of weariness. We’ve got enough of these stories now, we don’t need more. The Twilight Saga is what it is, and The Hunger Games is certainly pretty good for the most part. And yes, I suppose that technically Harry Potter is young adult fantasy literature, but the quality of the writing and the story is so far beyond most other things you will find in the genre my mind rarely puts it in the same category.
My point is this: it feels like it’s getting to be time to move on at this point. I hope this is the last thing we see in this space for a little while (spoiler alert, it won’t be because people are stupid).
This could very well be something that is made much more clear in the books, but I failed to understand what motivated our primary antagonist. Indeed, I failed to understand what her role was in the world, where she came from, what her end-game was, and more. As much as I would not want to take away any screen time from Shailene Woodley, I think Kate Winslet’s villain needed more screen time and characterization.
In addition, I could not figure out what Maggie Q’s character, Tori, was up to. What was her deal? Who was she? What faction was she with? Why was she there? It was frustrating.
I also felt as if I did not get to know the parents of our protagonist very well, which makes things that happen later in the film seem not quite as poignant as I believe they were meant to be. There are things surrounding their story that feel rushed and unexplained. And I don’t sympathize with them as much as I want or as much as I think the filmmakers want.
What really baffled me is that I did not understand how the faction system could ever come to be without force and totalitarian, iron fisted rule. That did not seem to be the case. The government seemed peaceful and democratic. Indeed the film is about trying to forcefully overthrow that. I did not understand why the weakest faction was in charge. I did not understand how anyone would have chosen that system and what purpose it actually served.
And then there’s the way factions are chosen. After taking a test to determine which faction is the best fit, a young person can still choose a different faction. But this choosing takes place very early in life and there’s no going back! Once you choose, you either make it in that faction or you are faction-less. And you are not allowed to go back to your family and previous faction (if you choose to leave it). This makes no sense at all. The idea was that this system was put in place as the only way to survive and rebuild some nebulous, cataclysmic event. But wouldn’t it be best to always let people be where they fit in best after such an event? And it’s so hard to know for sure, even in late teens, and sometimes early twenties. The institution of this system makes little sense.
In a dystopian novel/film series like The Hunger Games, it’s very clear why bad things are happening and why things are set up as they are. There are evil people perpetrating atrocities. Here, the idea is that those in charge are benevolent (at least prior to the attempted overthrow) so it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
But I have to say that once I got past all that, the film became quite enjoyable. Once you set aside your disbelief of these plot devices — for that’s what they are, trappings and setup for the story that follows — there really is a good story behind it all. And it was not even primarily about the romance between our two primary characters, though that element is certainly present.
When Tris (our heroine) joins the military faction, she must learn to survive. There’s just a hint of good cop, bad cop with the two training officers that is done almost to perfection. It’s subtle enough that you are not sure how things will end up.
I was particularly happy with the pacing of this film. There were actually not a lot of “action scenes” and I count that a blessing. This film also did not feel the need to rush through Tris’ training or make her into some super-star fighter girl. She’s about as you would expect from someone like her — barely making it. And though she improves her station, it’s not about her power or ability.
No Magic, No Prophecy
I think perhaps the most refreshing bit of all this is the fact that there is no magic, super powers, or prophecy (unless you count not fitting into a mold as a super power or magic) that propels Tris into being a hero. And in fact, at the end of the film, she’s sort of on the run. No, none of the flashy fantasy tricks are going on here. That’s not to say those things are bad or don’t have their place. Many of my favorite stories have the magic and prophecy elements. But this film’s lack of those things is refreshing. It’s not overly bombastic or oversold as a result. The characters that are properly fleshed out are much more real for being in a seemingly more realistic surrounding and circumstance.
This is the first time I’ve seen Shailene in any film that I know of and I think I might be a new fan. The trailers really made me doubt (I cannot convey enough how much you should discount the trailers in consideration of this film), but the film made me believe. Her performance was genuine and down to earth — and extremely likeable. Where there were weaknesses in the screen play, she brought me into the film and into her situation and circumstance through sheer talent of acting and likableness.
Overall I give this film a thumbs up and am genuinely looking forward to the next installment.