Science fiction movies are fascinating for what they say about the present, as much as for what they say about the future, and the just-released Insurgent, the second movie adaptation of Veronica Roth’s young adult trilogy, is no different. It’s an intriguing dramatisation of our modern world, where the school exams we take as late teenagers threaten to determine our future forever, and where we must choose a tribe to belong to, or risk being shunned and cast out of society altogether.
Picking up from the series’ first instalment, Divergent, the opening scenes of Insurgent sees our heroine, Tris Prior, laying low in the hippie-like commune of the Amity faction (a Nimbin-like world, minus the hard drugs). She’s trying to avoid being caught by the thuggish leaders of the military-like Dauntless faction – who are in turn serving at the behest of the sneaky intellectuals of the Erudite faction.
Tris (Shailene Woodley) is being hunted because she’s a “divergent” – someone who doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the five factions in her world (the other two factions are Abnegation, the selfless volunteers, and Candor, the lawmakers who value honesty and truth above all else).
The idea of society broken up into factions or castes is a well-worn science fiction trope. But what makes Roth’s story interesting is the way it imagines a dystopia not a million miles away from our own modern world. In the Divergent/Insurgent world, when faction members turn 16 they are injected with serum and undergo “simulations” to see what faction their personality corresponds to. In the first “test”, Tris enters a dream world where she has to choose between picking up food or a knife, between killing a dog or saving an innocent child.
It’s just a dramatised version of our own world, where youth are tested from a young age to determine their aptitude and personality – starting with a NAPLAN test, followed by opportunity class or selective schools tests, and then the most important test, the HSC. From their earliest years, we put children through a series of regimes that are seen as so significant to determining their future that millions of dollars and millions of hours are spent on tutors and private school fees and preparation to achieve the right results
The test Tris takes is also, in many ways, just a super-advanced version of the personality or psychometric tests administered to modern-day employees to ascertain some kind of essential personality, an essential essence, if you like, that will in turn dictate the workplace roles they’re subsequently offered.
Today, employees take career aptitude tests that ask them to answer questions such as ‘Would you rather be an architect or an accountant?” (As one senior public servant friend working in policy was recently asked). Or we might be asked how much we agree with questions like: “It’s better to get a job done than aim for perfection”. But what if your answer to the first question is neither? Or both? And what if your answer to the second question is “It depends”.
We live in a binary world, one where either/or, yes/no responses are collected and analysed and collated in data banks in a crude attempt to capture complex, contradictory individuals. But what if you don’t fit into any neat categories?
In the early scenes of Insurgent Tris defiantly cuts her hair into a boyish do. It just emphasises her boundary-crossing role, but it’s a tricky position for her to straddle. In a process that echoes the way our futures and identities are no longer automatically determined by the communities or families we are born into, Tris chooses to turn her back on her family’s faction (Abnegation) to join Dauntless. And in the initiation process that follows, she must hone the qualities of bravery that defines her adopted tribe. And she struggles to hide and reconcile the qualities that align her with other factions: intelligence, selflessness and a desire for the truth.
In Tris’ world, as in ours, there’s little to be gained from admitting any doubt in the values of one’s tribe. We live in a world where adeptly choosing and remaining loyal to your faction – your profession, your political party, or your social group – is an almost inexorable condition of obtaining social power. One where the “factionless” underclass are cast out of society, devoid of any power base.
It’s also a world where certainty, clarity and absolute confidence in one’s own views invariably trump equivocation, thoughtfulness, doubt and speculation. Anything wishy-washy must go. It’s a way we can quickly and reliably identify friends and enemies. We follow this blogger or tweeter or politician because they’re on our team, and we rarely have the time or the patience to allow for nuance, contradictions or complexity. It might be efficient, but it’s also a depressing scenario. One that doesn’t reward openness to change and evolution of ideas and views.
The divergents of the world challenge and confuse us. Tris might not know where she fits in, but she’s determined to keep moving forward to find out (in contrast to her boyfriend, who seems stuck replaying old parental dramas). By the end of Insurgent, Tris was seen leading her motley tribe into the uncertain but hopeful future in her ever-developing emotional arc. As Tris might say: “Divergents aren’t the problem. We are the solution.”