Divergent (2014) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
Running Time: 139 min.
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Zoe Kravitz, Jai Courtney, Kate Winslet, Tony Goldwyn, Miles Teller, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson, Ansel Elgort, Mekhi Phifer
Director: Neil Burger
Screenplay: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor (based on the novel by Veronica Roth)
Review published March 23, 2014
Comparisons will immediately be drawn between Divergent and The Hunger Games, as both are dystopian sci-fi film series based on a trilogy of young adult novels written by women, featuring teenage female protagonists in an action-thriller scenario leading a rebellion against a corrupt and manipulative government force, while also engaging in a bit of romance on the side. I've read the novel upon which this film is based, and I feel that the film paces better than the book, so fans of the books will likely enjoy these adaptations. However, the problem is that the film adheres to the worst parts of the book, namely, its ridiculous premise and sketchy details, building upon a house of cards that could collapse once any amount of pressure is exerted on its flimsy, edgeless design.
Adapted from the Vanessa Roth novel, Divergent takes place on a post-nuclear Chicago, which has been walled in from the apparently desolate outside world. In order to effectively run its insular society, the government has chosen to divide its citizens into what they naturally do best: the meek who look out for the well-being of others are in the ruling faction of Abnegation, the happy/friendly people are in the agricultural community of Amity, those who speak the truth work within the law as Candor, those who seek adventure and thrills enforce those laws and protect the community as Dauntless, and the highly intelligent folks serve the city as Erudite. Those who fit none of these are rendered social pariahs, while those who fall into more than one are Divergent, considered dangerous by the government and eradicated.
Although children are born into one of these five communities, as teenagers, they're tested one time to see which of the five factions they should truly belong to. It is during this time that we're introduced to Beatrice Prior (Woodley, The Spectacular Now), as a child growing up within Abnegation, who is tested and deemed Divergent, though it is covered up immediately for fear of repercussions. During the choosing ceremony, Beatrice chooses Dauntless as her new faction (changing her name to Tris), where she begins instruction in the ways of the fierce and fearless, undergoing a grueling training regimen that weeds out the weak. As she isn't naturally a pure Dauntless, she doesn't know if she will be able to keep up, but her Divergent qualities do make her stand out in other ways -- ways that put her in jeopardy from the heavily anti-Divergent Erudite politician, Jeanine Matthews (Winslet, Labor Day).
While Divergent isn't poorly directed by Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist), it suffers from a consummate blandness in its storyline that generates very little in terms of excitement during moments in which it should really come to life. Despite good production values, the film has a 'primed for a TV series' feel to it, rather than the grandeur of a big screen epic. The simplicity of the premise, combined with a concerted lack of explanation as to the how and why of such a strange idea for a society existing, makes it feel like the concepts are woefully underdeveloped, leading to a lack of trust in the narrative due to having to put aside the myriad of questions that inevitably develop and halfheartedly go with the flow just to see where things will lead. Not much of anywhere interesting, as it turns out.
Perhaps the best thing about Divergent is its strong performance by Shailene Woodley as Tris. There isn't much of a character there to work with, but Woodley does give her much-needed nuance for audiences to be able to root for her to succeed, which is perhaps the only element that actually keeps the film somewhat afloat to the very end. The supporting cast is fine for what they are, but their roles are barely even there save to present goals to achieve or obstacles to fight against for our heroine. Even Kate Winslet barely registers a performance of note. Unfortunately, what this fine collection of actors can't do beyond just offering up a few nicely acted moments is spark any momentum to the film's pacing, which plays out without any bits of excitement beyond a mildly interesting development here and there.
Other than its half-baked story premise, what really keeps Divergent from connecting is the existence and popularity of The Hunger Games. It's not just that this new series just feels like more of the same, but that it so clearly is hell-bent on adhering to the same blueprint, that it doesn't even try to be its own thing. If The Hunger Games is going to be 2 hours and 20 minutes, then Divergent must be as well, whether the story necessitates that length or not (it doesn't). If they're going to be spend a great deal of its time for finding a hunky, misunderstood love interest for its protagonist, then Divergent will too.
Yes, Divergent might fare better with critics had there not been a Hunger Games franchise already, but the problems with Divergent also stem from trying so hard to be that other, more popular franchise, such that it can never strike out from under its massive shadow to be something of its own. In other words, Divergent, contrary to its themes, is more about assimilation than in rebelling against the oppressive nature of the status quo.
©2014 Vince Leo