The first in a planned trilogy based upon Veronica Roth's young adult novels, Divergent is a mostly derivative cinematic endeavor with a placid devotion to young female empowerment that is about as convincing as is the notion that any society of sound mind would have ever developed such a ludicrous social construct as the faction system that serves as the framework upon which Divergent is built.
The film takes place after a time when a war has supposedly devastated the land and Chicago has become a walled in city separate into five factions constructed solely out of the idea that those who know their place in society are less likely to corrupt it. When a youth arrives at the age of sixteen-years-old, they undergo a test that is designed to show them their true self and point them towards which faction they should choose. This choosing occurs in an a simple yet significant choosing ceremony and it is stressed, on more than one occasion, that one may choose any of the factions despite the results of the testing. The society is governed by Abnegation, a faction said to be fit for governing because they lack self-interest. The other factions are Candor, the truth tellers, Erudite, the intelligent ones, Amity, the peaceful ones, and Dauntless, the brave ones who serve as the protectors. Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) and her brother (Ansel Elgort) have been raised by her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) in Abnegation, yet when her tester (Maggie Q) expresses alarm at her unrevealed yet troubling results she makes the decision to transform herself into Tris and to seek relative safety amongst the Dauntless.
You see, there's actually another option outside the five factions (actually, there's two options) - Tris is a Divergent, not so much a faction as an outlier from the factions because she possesses the true nature of each faction and, as such, is feared because, in essence, she cannot be controlled. The "other" option, which is mostly given lip service here, is "Factionless," or those who've either chosen to live outside the system or who have been cast out from it.
While it is virtually impossible to watch Divergent without contemplating The Hunger Games, the film appears to be an awful lot like the book in the sense that its influences at times dominate the material. From Dauntless's co-ed dorm that brings to mine Stormship Troopers to their costuming and stunts that make you think of The Lost Boys, Divergent is somehow both depressingly grim and laughably silly. Kate Winslet brings to mind Jodie Foster's Elysium psychotic CEO as the head of the Erudites, a faction that is actually planning a coup of Abnegation by playing a few mind control games with the combat ready Dauntless crew.
It's clear pretty early on that Tris is way in over her head and, to her credit, Woodley doesn't try to turn in a Jennifer Lawrence style performance here. Tris is a rather shy young woman whose diminutive size is clearly a disadvantage as she attempts to survive the rugged intensity of the Dauntless training. She quickly befriends another seemingly outsized young woman (Zoe Kravitz), while she gains the respect of instructor Four (Theo James). On the other hand, she seems to repeatedly find herself in conflict with a far more sadistic instructor (Jai Courtney), whose willingness to change the rules on a whim makes the whole training program a potentially life-threatening endeavor.
There are kernels of an interesting film to be found throughout Divergent, and despite the fact that I found a good majority of the far too long 140-minute film to be preposterous there are times when it becomes a surprisingly entertaining popcorn flick. While Woodley isn't nearly as compelling as is Lawrence, she makes for a far more believable youth whose vulnerability is even more compelling. She doesn't quite have what it takes when her character really amps up the volume in the film's action sequences, but there's a certain delight that should register with teenagers about an almost bookish nerd finding the strength to survive. Woodley does manage to give the film a desperately needed spark, yet the film's settings, especially once the Dauntless trainings begin, are relentlessly grim and bland. As Four, Theo James was a bit of a controversial casting but makes some convincing transitions here as a young man whose motivations and history become more and more clear. Winslet's one-dimensional turn is enthusiastic yet doesn't have nearly enough layers to it to overcome the obvious comparisons to Foster's character in Elysium. Jai Courtney is appropriately menacing, while both Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn are solid in what amounts to be bookend characters. Miles Teller, who plays one of Tris's primary adversaries among the Dauntless trainees, is mostly wasted here in a role that feels like more than a little of it was left on the cutting room floor.
Directed by Neil Burger, who also gave us The Illusionist and Limitless, Divergent is a more thought-provoking and less action-packed YA flick than the Hunger Games films yet it likely exists somewhere on the spectrum between those films and the more syrupy and campy Twilight films. Despite possessing what should be an emotionally resonant story, Divergent is decidedly light in terms of actual emotional resonance. It doesn't help that the music by Junkie XL is overwrought and dominating in the worst of ways.
With the next two films in the trilogy already on the books, one can only hope that lessons have been learned this time around and that the next couple of adventures are tighter and more involving efforts that live up to the potential of the fractured factions in this dysfunctional dystopian future.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic