The zeitgeist of Divergent and Elysium

I recently watched two films Divergent and Elysium. While mildly entertaining, I would not really recommend either of them. As with many such futuristic films, the plots are full of holes large enough that one can drive a truck through, but I am going to overlook them. What prompted me to write about them was what they said about the prevailing zeitgeist.

Both deal with a dystopian future. In Divergent, we have a cross between the visions of Brave New World and Gattacca, where young adults are sorted into five different groups in a ritual reminiscent of the sorting hat in the Hogwarts, but with choice thrown in. Each group has a specific role in society and the problem arises when the group that consists of the intellectuals (called Erudite) enlists the paramilitary forces (Dauntless) to take over the government from the Abnegation group. The other two groups of Amity (food producers) and Candor (honest people) play no role in the film.

Not being up to date on popular culture, I had not realized that this was based on a trilogy of popular books and so was dismayed at the end to find that the story was to be continued, because I have no intention of seeing the rest. The parody trailer produced by Honest Trailers gives a better representation of the film than the authentic one.

Elysium has an even darker tone, in addition to being extremely violent. Here the Earth has become pretty much a desolate place with Los Angeles looking like a crowded refugee camp with people living a bleak existence. The elites have abandoned Earth and created a new home for themselves in space in the form of a massive space station. Life there looks like the gated communities that currently exist on Earth, with massive homes, lush lawns and golf courses, and superb medical care. The people living there control everything, run factories on Earth to produce what they need, and shoot down any vehicles that try to bring ordinary people there from Earth.

Unfortunately there’s no parody trailer so I have to show you the official one.

Both films had the common feature of women playing the role of powerful villains. For such an accomplished actor, Jodie Foster in Elysium gives an astoundingly bad performance, playing a character that is so grimly and stereotypically bad as to be laughable. Kate Winslet in Divergent has more subtlety and nuance.

But what interested me was another commonality, and that was their vision. Each portrayed the current state of affairs on Earth taken to extremes, where there is rigid stratification of society and elites are taking control of all the power and resources, impoverishing everyone else and subjugating all to their will.

When I watched the films, the message I got was of a critique of the way things are and thus these were subversive films, even if badly constructed. But I was not sure if that was because I tend to see a political angle to a lot of things. Maybe others do not see them as warnings of where we are now and where we are headed but as purely escapist adventures.


  1. Dunc says

    You’re certainly not the first to think that: Laurie Penny on fiction: No wonder teens love stories about dystopias – they feel like they’re in one.

    There are clear reasons why this sort of story is appealing. The complete collapse of the narrative of what a secure future looks like for today’s young people and the grim messages about what the teenagers who grew up with Occupy and austerity have to look forward to as the planet heats up, the job market stutters, pension provision is depleted and the police get meaner have fostered a generational anxiety about how to cope with overmighty state power.

  2. Paulo Borges says

    If you are fond of the genre I can recommend Snowpiercer. It a disturbing “in your face” approach, open to endless interpretations.

  3. says

    I haven’t actually seen Elysium, but the ads had bits that looked like they were heavily inspired by the anime/manga series Gunnm, known as Battle Angel Alita in English. A quick look on Google indicates I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

  4. starskeptic says

    I wouldn’t say Jodie Foster “gives an astoundingly bad performance”, rather – she played an astoundingly badly written character…and not for the first time.

  5. laurentweppe says

    I wouldn’t say Jodie Foster “gives an astoundingly bad performance”, rather – she played an astoundingly badly written character

    Having met people who -behind closed doors- display the same type of cartoonish worldview than Foster’s character and are capable of proclaiming with straight faces that

    The plebs hates us patricians
    The plebs want to kill us all and plunder our riches
    The plebs have always wanted to kill us all and plunder our riches
    The plebs will always want to kill us all and plunder our riches

    And the only way to protect ourselves from this mob is to deputize and provide superior firepower to violent thugs who’ll then be tasked with keeping the plebs compliant.

    As if it was some sort of great metaphysical truth about the very nature of the Universe, I’d say that the problem came neither from Foster’s performance nor from the movie’s writing, but from the fact that the character she plays is, quite simply, a massive Poe.

    To make her (alas too realistic to be merely dismissed as mere bad writing/performance) character more interesting, a lot more screen-time should have been centered on her, maybe by turning Elysium into a two parter, with the first one telling her rise to prominence as the unhinged paranoid gate keeper of her space enclave for billionaires, and Matt Damon’s story serving as the crisis-that-led-to-the-villain-downfall act.

  6. says

    Haven’t seen neither of these films, I also thougth of Snowpiercer (mentioned by @Paulo Borges in #2). But I didn’t like that one either… I would comment furthe but it would be one hell of a spoiler

  7. says

    Most science fiction stories are social commentary. H. G. Wells’ stories often look at human nature (War of the Worlds was not about a Martian invasion, but about how humans would react to an overwhelming threat), the risks of pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge without concern for ethics (Island of Dr. Moreau, Food of the Gods) and the consequences of current social vectors (The Time Machine, The Sleeper Awakes.) Many of the stories by Jules Verne included political commentary: Captain Nemo was the son of a Raja, and hated the British Empire because his family was slaughtered in a failed attempt to overthrow British rule in India. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is a commentary against McCarthyism and its suppression of knowledge; his Martian Chronicles is an exploration of the effects of colonialism on both the colonists and the indigenous people.

    Isaac Asimov originally wrote that robots and mechanization would have a beneficial effect on humankind (the original “I, Robot” short stories and The Caves of Steel), but as the world began to develop robotic technology, Asimov changed his tune and wrote about how dependence on dispassionate nursemaids governed by inflexible standards would lead to the slow decay of everything that made us human (The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire.)

    Social commentary is not just a “classic” meme in SF. Most of Andre Norton’s books address the fears and worries of transitioning into adulthood before marketers had even developed the idea of young adult fiction. Robert Heinlein’s libertarian views come out often in his stories. Many of Kurt Vonnegut’s stories look at the consequences of war and social apathy. Kim Stanley Robinson has focused on global warming (the “Science in the Capital” trilogy) and planetwide social and ecological themes (his “Mars” trilogy.) The subgenre of cyberpunk looks at where we are now with how technology is changing our social structures and extrapolating it into the near(ish) future; the first wave of steampunk novels looked back at how the Industrial Revolution, colonialism and imperialism set the stage for modern social problems.

    While gung-ho cowboys in space SF does exist, most science fiction has been about commenting on current society and extrapolating contemporary trends into possible futures. Given the way things are today, it is really no surprise that current SF stories paint a rather dystopic future.

  8. Ed says

    I thought Elysium did a good job capturing the feeling of an increasingly stratified and authoritarian culture. The plot wasn’t very good, but the fictional society was a good metaphor for what we’re becoming. The same goes for that director’s other film, District 9.

    Divergent wasn’t my thing and not really for my age group, but I usually give dystopian films a chance. But I thought it had a good point about how we tend to put people (including ourselves) into simplistic categories and that very narrowly defined, insular subcultures are emerging.

  9. Silentbob says

    @ 8 Gregory in Seattle

    War of the Worlds was not about a Martian invasion, but about how humans would react to an overwhelming threat

    I thought it was a critique of European colonialism, encouraging readers to see themselves in the shoes of the “natives” helpless against a vastly more technologically sophisticated invader. Even the twist at the end echoes how indigenous peoples were often devastated by diseases brought from Europe (but does it in reverse).

  10. laurentweppe says

    I thought it was a critique of European colonialism, encouraging readers to see themselves in the shoes of the “natives” helpless against a vastly more technologically sophisticated invader

    You don’t have to think much about it: the narrator pretty much states it so during the book’s very first chapter:
    The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

  11. Dunc says

    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is a commentary against McCarthyism and its suppression of knowledge

    Actually, Bradbury has explicitly stated that he intended Fahrenheit 451 not as a critique of the state, censorship, or Macarthyism, but of television. So much for authorial intent…

  12. laurentweppe says

    Bradbury’s opinions about his own work tended vary and change over time, so there’s no certainty that his opinion circa 2007 expressed his actual intent 50 years prior.

    Although one could easily argue that both censorship and using tech-savvy panem and circenses are tool meant to reinforce the people’s acceptance of the status quo.

  13. Mano Singham says

    Another point of view is that once an author has published a work, he/she ceases to have control over how it is interpreted. They can say what their intent was but that view does not have any special status with respect to any other interpretation.

  14. lanir says

    I think that’s something creative people struggle with fairly often – who owns the reader’s vision of a work. It’s sort of obvious how that has to be answered when you restate it that way but it’s still hard to completely let go of something you spent so much time and effort creating. Films and books actually have it easy in this regard compared to shorter forms of art. The shorter forms like poems or songs are often more popular when they give enough space to let the audience interpret them in different ways to suit their own personal situations/circumstances.

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