The new movie "Divergent" opens on a marsh, wild and untended, its grasses long, wavy and serene. So what follows, considering the relatively benign, "Ferris Bueller"-ed archetype of Chicago on film, might prove unnerving: As the camera pans across those grasses, it picks up a rusting cargo ship, stranded and incongruous; then a tall, vast metal fence; and finally, inside that fence, as the camera pushes forward, an ominous, decaying Chicago. You've seen versions of this shot in many movies in the past few decades, the skyline as seen from Lake Michigan, the camera racing over Navy Pier …
Except here, the marsh is Lake Michigan.
And instead of a vibrant, healthy metropolis of canals and glass towers downtown, the Lake Shore Drive bridge at the Chicago River has collapsed; a few skyscrapers have fallen into jumbles of stones; a few are heavily damaged, the outcome of some unnamed catastrophe; and many more stand dormant and dark. There don't seem to be any cars, and there don't seem to be any people. A little water remains in the main branch of the river but not that much. And everywhere, vegetation runs riot.
The City That Does Not Work.
"What do you think? Does it work? Is Chicago treated well?" Theo James asked me the morning after I saw "Divergent," which opens Thursday night. James, 29, plays Four, the romantic interest for the story's heroine, Tris, played by Shailene Woodley, 22. Together, Tris and Four lead the resistance in a vaguely totalitarian, dystopian Chi-Town 150 years in the future, where Chicagoans live in regimented tribes that are organized by character traits: brutal honesty, selflessness, intelligence, boldness, passivity. Basically, those are your options — and choose well, because that's how you are for life. In other words, Chicago has become high school. And yet it's all to maintain order: Decades ago, human nature led to ruin, and so human nature needed a timeout.
Or something like that …
"I thought the film showed how beautiful Chicago is. Even as, you know, a dystopia," James said.
"And I think the dystopian side is a metaphor for a lot of society right now," Woodley said.
They're both right. There are actually two dystopias at work in "Divergent." The first is the film's thoughtfully nuanced imagining of a dystopian Chicago, a vision with a surprising basis in reality. And the other: Dystopian fiction itself, which has a history that, at least for the publishing industry, has become increasingly, well, dystopian. In decline. As seemingly played out as teenage vampires. Not that you can always tell from sales figures: The "Divergent" series of young adult novels, by Chicago's Veronica Roth, has sold more than 11 million copies, according to Publishers Weekly.
Then again, it's also hard to imagine Chicago ever returning to dirt roads and wilderness when you're sitting in the kind of utopian cafe in River North where I spoke with James and Woodley, jars of marmalade stacked on a rustic farm table and fresh flower arrangements in the windows.
"Personally, I had to level this story mentally," he said. "I had to imagine — in a world, a place grown so unworkable — that it needed a new system."
"In a world …," Woodley growled.
"Yes, in a world." He smiled, then added, "The world that came before our characters was so apocalyptic, Chicago was pushed to create a functional system to handle personalities, which doesn't really function …"
"War had something to do with it," she said.
"And we're the generation after the generation after the generation."
"But there's not enough people to continue the upkeep now."
"Thus, a dystopia," James said. "Hard to imagine. As are many things hard to imagine existing, until one day they do."
Throughout the spring and summer last year, while the movie crew of "Divergent" shot around Chicago, production designer Andy Nicholson, who had recently finished work on the technologically innovative "Gravity," often found himself driving through potholes. Every day he drove to the set, he said, and every day he would notice "a lot of Chicago roads needed resurfacing or seemed about to be resurfaced or were in the middle of resurfacing. You saw a lot of neglect in Chicago." And when the crew ventured into old steel yards on the South Side, Nicholson noticed overgrowth not unlike what he pictured for Michigan Avenue in the film.
One of those days he drove downtown to visit Benet Haller, principal adviser on urban design and planning for Chicago's Department of Planning and Development. Nicholson and "Divergent" director Neil Burger (who made the imaginative "Limitless" and "The Illusionist") were having problems imagining exactly how Chicago might look in decline.
"There wasn't much world-building in the book," Burger recalled. "It was thin on description, so I had a lot of specific questions for (Roth): How do these people use money? Do they have money? Do they have pets? Where do they get material for clothing? She could answer some of that." Remembered Nicholson: "The point is, Chicago is cut off from the world, but the book didn't provide enough explanation. Which was the challenge. I said to Neil, 'Are we going to have to add shopping carts?' Every dystopian fantasy, someone's pushing a shopping cart. I don't want to see people pushing shopping carts!"
Luckily, Haller is paid to imagine the worst.
"And I don't even need a film production to do it," he said. "Really, it's my job to think about recent events and the implications on the future of the city. I do this all the time. I have read so many dystopian novels! I am a fan of those scenarios, about what happens when a civilization collapses. I have visited a lot of ruins."
Is it reassuring or scary that Planning and Development is harboring a Philip K. Dick fan?
Said Haller: "They wanted to know what Chicago would look like 20 years in the future so they could then show its decline from there out. I told them: More tall buildings. And we don't envision any new districts, but probably more expansion west. And we're sort of slaves to transportation systems, so everything would continue to converge on the Loop." He also told them about the city's flood-fighting Deep Tunnel Project (in the film, one of the factions is headquartered in a network of massive underground tunnels). "I didn't mean to sound optimistic," Haller said, "but, barring ecological collapse, our dystopian possibilities are mitigated."
So the production settled on a few truisms for its dystopian Chicago: The fence that rings the city and keeps anyone from coming or going is maybe 10 miles long. About 50,000 people live inside its perimeter. And because cars have mostly vanished, roads are dirt again (eliminating the need for sidewalks). They possess some 3-D printing capabilities ("to build the parts they might need," Nicholson said). But street signs, traffic lights — all gone. Nicholson wanted to level Trump Tower but came to like it and demolished the red CNA Center instead ("for aesthetic reasons").
Biggest addition: The enormous wind turbines that hug those eerie, empty skyscrapers. "We liked the idea that this is how the Windy City gets its energy now," Burger said, adding, "What struck me was that this wasn't their dystopia. They created a utopia. At least they thought."
As dystopian narratives often illustrate, utopias and dystopias are two sides of the same coin.
Actually, real life has illustrated it well too. The history of planned communities, even aspirational utopias, in the Chicago area is long and rich. And also mixed, said Robert Bruegmann, an architecture historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago: "The problem inherent in many is that the founders tend not to know what demands will be. So conditions change, and they can't." In the late 19th century alone, there was the founding of Pullman on the South Side, created for employees of the Pullman rail car company; south suburban Harvey, started by a Moody Bible Institute associate and intended as a haven of religious values; and Riverside, next to Berwyn, a planned community designed in part by Frederick Law Olmsted. Said Tim Ozga, president of the Olmsted Society of Riverside, "I don't think he used 'utopia' exactly, but the idea was to put citizens in a happy mood. So, parks, riverside — lots of green space. Just not enough tax-revenue sources."
According to Jim Gilbert, author of "Perfect Cities," a 1991 history of Illinois utopias: "Pullman disintegrated because there were labor problems. And Harvey became a slum. Even the White City from the 1893 World's Fair became a magnet for transients. There's always a dark side, because the seed of destruction tends to be planted in the utopia itself. Chicago was calling it the White City, though Chicago at that time was so full of soot and tar. A dirty place. Because the utopia was the dream, the dystopia was our reality."
Anyway, movie stars.
I asked if they liked dystopian stories. "'Star Wars' was my jam growing up," Woodley said. "I get asked this question periodically now, and the truth is, I just have no personal experience with any dystopias, really."
"And I loved 'Blade Runner,'" James said. "I like dystopias because it's a fantasy anchored in the world. And young people, they hear about rising sea levels, temperatures, financial and ecological drains on resources. Maybe subconsciously they're reading this stuff because they know it's the place they're going to inherit?"
Perhaps you don't remember, but "The Hunger Games," the novel from Suzanne Collins that launched a bazillion dystopias — and from which "Divergent" is clearly an "offspring," said Burger — first hit bookshelves in mid-September 2008, the moment the financial world began to crumble. Coincidence or not, it became a prismatic metaphor for social inequality, reality TV, peer pressure, our surveillance state. Its success also opened the barn door for dystopian YA-lit metaphors about depleted natural resources ("Ship Breaker"), social anxiety ("Uglies"), even the abortion debate ("Unwind"). Joelle Charbonneau, the Palatine-based author of "The Testing," a successful YA dystopia about standardized testing, said, "When I finished writing the final book in the trilogy (due out this summer), I realized it was actually about No Child Left Behind."
And now, she said, "publishers feel dystopianed-out. You can't think about pitching one these days."
Which is understandable, albeit ironic, considering that dystopian lit has always seemed like a real cradle-to-grave genre: You get assigned "The Giver" or "Brave New World" in high school and you read "The Road" as an adult. "Dystopian narratives are really just about societies with tremendous inequality," said Gary Wolfe, a professor at Roosevelt University and celebrated editor of science fiction literature. "So teenagers already live in dystopias: They don't trust adults and they don't trust parents. I don't see the dystopia going away."
At the University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana, Suzanne Linder has taught a course on dystopias since 2008. Actually, two courses, 45 students total. They read adult and YA lit, "and, in general," she said, "they do notice that in adult dystopia the outlook is grim. Change isn't possible."
Which, in more ways than one, is decidedly not the message of the "Divergent" series.
Nor is it the case for Chicago: Despite seemingly intractable problems that would suggest it is a perfect 21st-century dystopian setting — perpetually heavy-handed government, gun violence, profound inequality — Chicago is, in fact, such a prosperous place that it's likely new installments of "Divergent" will not film here. (The sequel, "Insurgent," will shoot in Atlanta, and it is unclear what Chicago's role will be.) The city is too expensive. Said Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office: "Filmmakers understand it's a thriving place, which makes it difficult to push everything aside to film. Chicago can read, in places, as a city in decline. Yet, sitting next door, you're also looking at some of the highest-priced real estate in the country."
Which is why the "Divergent" series should stay: Tris is a young, ambitious woman in a predatory, competitive city. She lives in the Loop, but she knows: One big screw-up and she could easily be homeless.
Ring any metaphorical bells?
Before breakfast ended, I asked Woodley and James if they saw much of the dystopian side of Chicago.
"Well, I didn't love Chicago," Woodley said.
That's remarkable to hear from a star: She didn't love the place where she made a movie. James, from suburban London, mumbled: "Well, it is disparate, kind of hard to find the center." But Woodley continued: "I'm from L.A., I'm a nature chick, so the lack of sunshine … . In all fairness, I didn't get to know Chicago. I was living in an apartment building (in the South Loop), and that lifestyle, holed up, did not resonate too well."
I nodded. If you've ever spent a weekend in the Loop, or just walked a street there after offices empty out at night, you can sympathize too: It feels like some population-thinning event has occurred, and only a few hardy survivors are left.
It feels dead, I said.
"Dystopian," she said.
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