Based on the debut novel by Veronica Roth, Divergent is Hollywood’s latest attempt to cash in on the Young Adult craze and appeal to teenage girls via a film franchise about a young heroine rebel in a dystopian world.
Only, Divergent is no Hunger Games.
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Directed efficiently by Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless), who never lets the film sag even at 2 hours, 20 minutes, the movie is an adaptation of the first book in Roth’s three-part series set in a future Chicago, decaying and walled off from outside dangers a century after a major war. Despite the city’s dilapidated state, there inexplicably remains a power grid, a rail system that never stops, and high-tech computers and medicine far beyond our current abilities. Perhaps the books explain this; screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor do not.
We do learn that Chicago, formerly the third largest city in the United States, is now its own nation and home to a population divided into five factions, a social order rooted in modern times.
Amity are the peaceful agriculturists, e.g., the hippies. Candor are honest to a fault, so naturally they’re the lawyers and judges of this . Dauntless are the crazy-brave risk takers, who serve as soldiers to police and protect the city. Abnegation are the selfless caretakers — the social workers — who have been trusted by the other factions to rule future Chicago. And Erudite are the brainiac scientists who are a bit full of themselves.
Children are born into a faction and as teens undergo a dream-like test to determine their true nature, meaning to which social class they belong. This is part of a rite of passage known as Choosing Day, a Harry Potter-esque ritual missing only the Sorting Hat in which teens announce their faction allegiance and are promptly shepherded away.
But there’s a major glitch in this new world job-life placement system: What happens to those with more than one faction quality — a status known as Divergents? It’s a rare occurrence; nevertheless, the odds weren’t in favor of Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley).
A member of the Abnegation faction, Beatrice discovers she’s Divergent, with aptitudes in three traits: Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. That’s not good. Divergents are feared by the Erudite as a risk to the strict social order and summarily killed by the Dauntless.
She’s warned to keep her triple-threat abilities a secret and to remain in Abnegation on Choosing Day. But Beatrice doesn’t think she belongs with the do-gooders — not like her helpful brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) or her humble parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn). So she chooses Dauntless and promptly changes her name to Tris as a reflection of her new identity.
The switch from social worker to soldier-in-training isn’t easy. Tris struggles with the strenuous and often violent challenges, as well as an initiate nemesis named Peter (Miles Teller) and the Dauntless leader Eric (Jai Courtney), both of whom question how a “stiff” (street slang for Abnegates) can make it as a fearless protector.
She also makes a few friends, Christina (Zoë Kravitz), Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), and Al (Christian Madsen), and finds she has an ally in Four (Theo James), the buff initiate instructor who has a mysterious background. (And therefore, it must be explored.)
Peter and Eric may make life difficult for Tris, but her biggest threat comes from Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet sleepwalking through a small role), leader of the Erudite, which are secretly plotting to replace the Abnegation faction as the new rulers of dystopian Chicago with the might of Dauntless to ensure it happens.
A talented young actress, Woodley is a good fit for Tris, expertly dropping into the various emotional requirements of each scene: confused, happy, sad, confused and sad again, then angry and determined. In interviews Woodley expressed her reluctance to take on the franchise lead — she worried it would detract from more personal projects — and had to be talked into the role by fellow dystopian heroine Jennifer Lawrence. But Divergent is only going to boost Woodley’s clout with studios and increase her film options. She’s the best part of the film.
Directed by Neil Burger.
Written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, based on the Veronica Roth novel.
A Summit release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements, and some sensuality
Running time: 135 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★½
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Miles Teller.
★★★★★ Outstanding; ★★★★ Very Good; ★★★ Good; ★★ Fair; ★ Poor
James has a nice screen presence, but isn’t required to do much emotional heavy lifting. Four is silent, mysterious, brooding, and finally smitten with Tris. The feeling is mutual, though she and the film keep the romance to the minimum. There’s enough going on in Divergent already without padding. As it is, there’s an information overload that comes at the expense of underdeveloped characters and puzzling actions, including Tris’ betrayal by a friend. The film offers a half-hearted explanation that the stress of trying to make it as a Dauntless got to him, while Roth wrote it as a consequence of spurned love.
Perhaps the best compliment to be said of Divergent is how much this film shines a light on The Hunger Games as a lauded franchise that gets everything right.
That’s not meant to slag Divergent. It’s far superior to fellow YA movie series Twilight in every respect, from the story and characters to the acting and production values.
But tales of a troubled future society and young vampire-human love aren’t equal in story gravitas or intellectual heft. Instead, the more appropriate comparison is the most obvious. And The Hunger Games, with its similar fate-of-the-known-world terms, is simply better, from its thoughtful source material by novelist Suzanne Collins to its cultural relevancy with themes of social order and government subjugation. Meanwhile, Divergent never properly settles on its motif. Is it individualism trumps tribalism? Or that individual success is tethered to teamwork? Is strict social order too constrictive? Or is intellectualism the true enemy of social order?
If this all seems too deep for such an enterprise, consider this take-away message from the film: Divergent is simply a YA book masquerading as a high-minded dystopian novel, a Brave New World by way of Teen Beat.