'Divergent' dreams up a broken future Chicago

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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.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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