'Divergent' dreams up a broken future Chicago

'Divergent's' vision of dystopian Chicago has a surprising basis in reality

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!"

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