It’s all a numbers game, and Divergent, the first of three novels in a trilogy penned by Veronica Roth, is the next tribute amongst a slew of recent young adult adaptations to hit the big screen. Aside from The Hunger Games, no other YA targeted movie has yet to become the next big franchise to fill the void since Harry Potter and Twilight bid farewell. And although Divergent looks shiny and new, director Neil Burger (Limitless; The Illusionist) fails to deliver a compelling enough experience to accept the fact that we may have to endure two more of these.
In the derivative world of today’s Hollywood, Divergent neither excels nor improves upon the sci-fi, teen angst stories we have seen before. An amalgamation of elements from more successful YA novels, the tale of Beatrice Prior aka Tris (Shailene Woodley) takes place in yet another post-apocalyptic future – this time Chicago – where its residents are forced to live in five different factions based on a Myers Briggs personality test of sorts.
In a very quick introduction voice over by Tris we are told that after a massive war society was broken into these factions to ensure it never happens again. Why the war happened, who it was with, and how it ended is never discussed, but at least Chicago has a large security fence as tall as a skyscraper surrounding the city to protect against a giant T-Rex or something. Planes must not be an issue either because they could easily fly over the fence, but we never see any flown; technology in this world is used for guns, digital display panels, seeing into a person’s dreams, and instant tattoos, not for rebuilding a more suitable world to live in – that would be silly.
Tris was born within the Abnegation faction aka the just and loyal Hufflepuffs. Abegnation are the leading figures of government because of their selflessness. She lives with her mother Natalie (Ashley Judd), father Andrew (Tony Goldwyn), and brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) who is also taking the aptitude test despite being older, which makes no sense per the rules stating 16-year-olds must take the test and choose a faction.
Now that Tris is 16-years-old, she must partake in a process where she is told to drink an unknown liquid to determine which clique she belongs to. (Sounds like a regular Friday night to me.) Based on her results, she may find herself fitting in with Dauntless aka the courageous Gryffindors; Candor aka the ready-minded Ravenclaws; Erudite aka the cunning Slytherins; or the last group known as Amity who just farm and have no real stakes or voice in the entire film.
But as the title and trailer suggests, Tris’ results of her aptitude test are inconclusive and discovers she is a rare breed known as Divergent. Those labeled Divergent can fit into any faction because they are capable of having more than one personality trait – explanation as to why everyone else cannot achieve the same level of basic human nature is not provided. Through a sorting hat-like process, after wasting time with an aptitude test that tells each teen which faction they should belong to, everyone is able to choose a faction, via a blood sacrifice, they’d like to shack up with for the rest of their lives. (Why this society doesn’t keep children with their families in the factions they grew up in for the last 16 years, learning the way of life and values within, is beyond me because the the movie certainly does not express against this concept.)
Luckily for Tris, her aptitude test proctor Tori (Maggie Q) allowed her to walk away despite one line of dialogue telling us Divergents are a threat to the system. Evidence to prove Divergents are dangerous to the way of life is never explained well enough to truly justify as a threat. So Tris hides her little secret anyway and chooses Dauntless because she would not want to become factionless, a nomadic people without a home who are not accepted into any of the five factions – doesn’t that make them Divergent?
While spending almost an hour through a rigorous training regime to prove to us she is the one, we are introduced to a love interest named Four (Theo James). Four is the eye candy until the main conflict presents itself almost two-thirds of the way into the movie; the Erudites want to overthrow Abnegation as the leaders because selflessness is too weak and not logical. Heaven forbid anyone should be able to think beyond their means.
With a taxing two hour and twenty minute run time, Divergent is a complete clunker. The real grit of the story doesn’t begin until well over an hour in and it isn’t until the last thirty minutes that some kind of resolve needs to happen. Since I haven’t read the book, I’m not sure if it is Roth’s lack of imagination or the screenwriters Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor’s (Jack & Bobby) failure to bring the book to life, but Divergent is absolutely devoid of any kind of world building to make this film stand out besides its loony way of assigning factions to its citizens. They even use the Chicago’s L transit system to ride into Hogwarts, I mean Dauntless.
Strangely, there seems to be no adults anywhere unless they play a small role in the plot, and yet there are so many kids running around. The bulk of the movie is focused on these kids and their plight to fit into Dauntless. Tris and Four’s parents become a convoluted piece of the puzzle near the final act, adding little relevance, clarity, emotional depth, or importance. Janine (Kate Winslet), an Erudite and President Snow rip-off, is one of the few adults we get to know and acts as the main antagonist, posing as a faceless, unmotivated, and irrational villain.
Thankfully, Woodley and James are able to have enough chemistry on screen to provide some redeeming qualities. Another case of beautiful people falling for beautiful people. Without Woodley, Divergent could not stand a chance. There is also a Ron Weasley-esque sidekick for Tris named Christina (Zoe Kravitz) as well as a Neville-esque boy named Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). I did find it quite amusing that Miles Teller plays a bully to Woodley, his love interest in The Spectacular Now; and that Elgort plays Woodley’s brother, her love interest in The Fault in our Stars.
Visually unimpressive with an uninspiring score that does nothing to better the film’s lack of a personality, Divergent struggles even on a superficial level. Even a larger budget than most YA adaptations can’t set it apart from the rest. Sets do not feel lived in and the different factions are hardly explored, making the world even more unbelievable than it already is. I’m glad there is no shaky cam like in The Hunger Games, but every other shot is a close up of someone’s face. It’s Les Misérabes all over again. The action is also nearly incomprehensible with how close to the action the camera positions itself.
Themes of discovering who you are, understanding your place in the world, and standing up for yourself are practically force fed, but in the final third of the film the moral teachings diminish and Divergent transforms into a popcorn action flick. Burger tries to materialize high concepts of freewill, totalitarianism, and the human condition, but misses the mark by focusing more on the romance and action than answering the bigger questions.
Divergent is simple fan service at its best; it even ends so abruptly that no ramifications of Erudite’s actions, Tris’ Rebellion, or Dauntless’ coup d’etat are mentioned. Anyone going into this movie without having read the books is going to end up confused or annoyed by the sheer lack of coherence. If six – Vampire Academy, Ender’s Game, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, The Host, Beautiful Creatures – box office bombs within the last year haven’t woken up studios yet, Divergent should certainly put an end to Hollywood continually hitting the snooze button.
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Divergent releases everywhere Friday, March 21, 2014. It was directed by Neil Burger, with a run time of 139 minutes. This film has been rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements, and some sensuality.
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