Divergent takes place in a future Chicago that exists in the era after a great war. In order to avoid the pitfalls of the former world, the new society is divided into five factions: Candor (outspoken opinionated types suited for legality and politics), Erudite (the brainiacs who love knowledge and logic), Dauntless (brave risk-takers used for policing and military service), Amity (peaceful hippie-type farmers), and Abnegation (Amish-style simple folk who are the only ones trusted to hold public office). At age sixteen, each citizen is given an aptitude test meant to reveal their personality, and soon after, he or she must freely decided for themselves which faction they will join for life. “Faction before blood,” as the old adage goes…
The twist comes when young Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) takes her aptitude test and discovers that she is “divergent” – i.e., part of an anomalous percentage of people who don’t fit into any of the five factions. Beatrice is warned that divergence is a death sentence, so she reinvents herself as “Tris,” a fearless and spirited member of Dauntless faction. However, before being accepted as a Dauntless warrior Tris has to contend with harsh instructors like Four (Theo James) and Eric (Jai Courtney), and jealous fellow recruits like Peter (Miles Teller) – all while protecting the secret of her divergence at all costs.
Directed by Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist) and based on the young adult book series by Veronica Roth, Divergent presents an interesting sci-fi world and premise by way of an interesting main character – but unfortunately, those positives are weighted down by the usual negatives associated with modern YA genre films: namely, thin writing and cheesy teen romance.
Burger is best known as a director (some might say underdog) whose films create solid and immersive cinematic experiences with nice flourishes – even if his overall style as a director often fails to wow. Divergent pretty much falls in step with the trend of Burger’s other films – a solid realization that has some nice flourishes, but never fully achieves an awe-inspiring cinematic experience.
The future world of Roth’s novel looks interesting onscreen, but often the set pieces are something you could see in a sci-fi television show, and many of the attempts at more cinematic visual flair fall flat – as in, flat on the unconvincing green screens and poorly rendered CGI objects that are the standard of this film. Despite those (budgetary) shortcomings, however, Burger’s small stylistic flourishes do make many of the surreal moments of the film interesting (the fear test sequences), and generally sell the world the film is attempting to create. In other words: a solid director does a solid job.
Having never read the novel myself, I can’t know how well writers Evan Daughterty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones) did with adapting the book for the screen – but knowing the basic summary of the story, I can say that many of the problems in Divergent likely originate at the source. The good parts of the story rest with the premise, the protagonist, and the overall themes about self-identity and defying conformity in favor of individuality. Luckily, those ripe elements of the story are what constitute the first two acts of the film, as Tris finds her faction and navigates the rough training regiment of Dauntless.
Where things go awry is (as per usual for this genre) when the teen romance subplot sucks momentum out of what was a more engaging and interesting story – but that’s not to take away from lead actors Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) and Theo James (Underworld: Awakening). She’s cute, feisty and smart, he’s tall charming and handsome; the pair create an understated, slow-burn flirtatious chemistry that really carries the character moments of the film.
However, when Tris and Four inevitably go all doe-eyed for one another, it’s pretty much a derailment of everything the film was doing up to that point. Gone is the story of an independent young woman’s journey of self-discovery and empowerment, and here again is the insipid YA cliche where kissing the boy solves all the problems. (The last scene in the film is especially ridiculous in this regard.)
Aside from Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard) once again adding some flavor as abusive drill sergeant, Eric, the supporting cast (which includes Maggie Q, Ashley Judd, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn and Mekhi Phifer) is pretty much a misuse of some good talent. The supporting characters are either flat, cliched or undeveloped during the course of the film – and yes, I know, the book probably explains them in greater detail. But the film does not. Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd do good work with their roles as the cold leader of Erudite and Tris’ mother, respectively. But don’t count on those accomplished actresses to have much screen time.
In the end, Divergent, falls somewhere in a middle ground between high points of The Hunger Games and the low points of The Twilight Saga. It’s not dead on arrival (see: The Mortal Instruments), but it’s too close to call whether or not many viewers (beyond the built-in fanbase) will leave the theater eager for the next chapter in Tris’ path to self-discovery… and boys.
Divergent is now playing in theaters. It is 139 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.
Stay tuned for our Divergent episode of the Screen Rant Underground Podcast.
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