I don’t mind being surprised. Sometimes it’s nice to have your expectations thwarted. So you can imagine my surprise as I watched Divergent and found it wasn’t half-bad at all. Now, granted, it straddles the line somewhat between good and mediocre, but for what it has to offer, Divergent is a passable, if not formulaic, young-adult feature film.
Based on the best-selling novel by Veronica Roth, Divergent is set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago divided into five factions, based on certain traits: Abnegation, the selfless government leaders (boy, is that paradoxical); Dauntless, the brave train-hopping soldiers; Erudite, the intelligent scientists and teachers; Amity, the peaceful farmers, nurses, and artists; and finally, Candor, the honest lawyers (again, paradoxical). For every young person’s 16th birthday, after taking an aptitude test for factions, they must go through a ceremony called the Choosing, where they can choose to stay in the faction they were born in or transfer to another faction. Those who fail to belong in any faction are “factionless,” which basically means they’re homeless.
The film follows a one Beatrice Prior, born into Abnegation. Though content in Abnegation, she has always had an interest in Dauntless. When she goes through her aptitude test (a bizarre simulation involving mirrors, reflections of herself, and a seriously hacked-off canine), her tester reveals that she is the titular Divergent: having the attributes of more than one faction, Divergents are freethinkers who can’t conform to the social order and thus are considered threats.
But you wouldn’t really know that based on the plot. Though Divergent has an interesting setting, the plot is quite haphazard. The “Beatrice as Divergent” plot thread is pushed almost immediately to the side and scarcely makes any sort of resurgence afterwards, which will make some viewers (especially those unfamiliar with the book) wonder what exactly is the problem with being Divergent. Then there are the growing rumors in Chicago about Abnegation being selfish and the Erudite complaining about it, and Beatrice—who later calls herself Tris—leaving Abnegation for Dauntless, and it makes you wonder what the writers want to focus on. What should generate suspense fails to do so in the end.
|Four (Theo James) giving Tris (Shailene Woodley) some fighting advice.|
Still, when the writers do decide what to focus on, Divergent can be pretty entertaining. The second act of the film is comprised largely of Tris undergoing Dauntless training such as weapons training and hand-to-hand combat. These segments can be fun enough, particularly one scene where different Dauntless teams play a game of “capture the flag.”
There’s quite a cast in Divergent, and all do a good job with their roles; for example, Jai Courtney gets the intimidation factor down with one the Dauntless teachers, and Zoe Kravitz as Tris’ best friend, Christina of Candor, carries her character’s snarky humor quite well. The focus, however, is on the two leads: Shailene Woodley as Tris and Theo James as Four (yes, like the number), Tris’ instructor and, yes, her later love interest as well. Woodley has undeniable charm and innocence as Tris and James, despite being a hard-as-nails instructor, is very likable and charismatic. The only real casting misstep is Kate Winslet, who is squandered talent in a largely absent and transparent villainous role.
Camerawork is pretty standard; lots of establishing shots of Chicago, wide shots of bigger environments to provide setting, and tilted angles for growing action. However, there was one too many times where the viewer has to stare into Woodley’s face through multiple close-ups. It’s like the director couldn’t decide what to do what to a scene, so he thought it was a good idea to Woodley’s face whenever he got stuck. Ok, man, we get it; she’s beautiful. Now can you please give her and us some breathing room next time?
Divergent as a novel has been compared more than once to the latest young-adult novel, The Hunger Games, with its emphasis on teenagers fighting—literally and metaphorically—against the established social order. There are definitely similar themes, but The Hunger Games film series is ultimately in a class of own. Despite some good acting and fun action scenes, Divergent doesn’t quite live up to those standards and remains instead a cut-and-dried young-adult film.
Final score: 5 bags of popcorn out of 10. Director: Neil Burger. Writer: Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty. Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q, and Kate Winslet.