Posted on Friday, March 21st, 2014 by Angie Han
Fair or not, it’s impossible not to measure Divergent against The Hunger Games. This is true for obvious reasons, in that they’re both dystopian YA adaptations featuring strong heroines, or that Divergent is actively and openly gunning to be the next Hunger Games. Unfortunately, it’s also true because Divergent, as directed by Neil Burger, never makes enough of a mark to rise above that easy comparison.
It’s not that Divergent is terrible. The movie serves up a couple of nice moments and some very appealing performances. But where the Hunger Games offered a rich, colorful universe, Divergent offers us a half-competed sketch. Where The Hunger Games felt bracingly different from its own predecessors, Twilight and Harry Potter, Divergent feels like well-meaning knock-off of all three.
From the outset, the Veronica Roth adaptation is hampered by a ridiculous premise. The story unfolds in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, in which society has divided itself into five personality-based factions. (Think of the Houses in Harry Potter, only applied to an entire city instead of just one school campus.) Once the kids in this society turn 16, they pledge themselves to a faction of their choosing. The problem, for protagonist Tris (Shailene Woodley), is that the
Sorting Hat aptitude test doesn’t work on her. She’s Divergent, you see, meaning she has more than one personality trait.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh here. I haven’t read the sequels, and it’s possible that Roth explains later on why any society would choose to divide itself in such an absurdly complicated matter. And yes, as an outsider teen fantasy, it makes perfect sense. What misfit kid doesn’t dream of finding out that their very inability to fit neatly into a clique is what makes them special and powerful? As a practical foundation for an entire community (albeit a fictional one), though, it’s nonsense.
So Tris decides to leave behind the selfless Abnegation faction, where she grew up, and instead aligns herself with the Dauntless faction. These boisterous badasses look like punk rockers but function, essentially, as soldiers. Bravery is their defining characteristic, which they express in the shallowest ways possible: they get around by jumping on and off of moving trains, refuse to install any safety railings in their cavernous common area, and adorn themselves with silver piercings and black tattoos. Physical courage is all well and good, but it’s hard to see the point in making the city’s defenders risk their lives every time they need to go into the town square.
Once Tris has installed herself in Dauntless, she finds herself faced with a couple of new challenges. First and foremost is the whole Divergent thing. Divergents “threaten the system,” as we’re told over and over by various characters in urgent yet cryptic whispers. Why they pose such a danger is not revealed until later in the movie, it’s immediately clear is that Tris needs to hide her Divergent-ness in order to stay alive. Meanwhile, she’s struggling just to keep her head above water as a new Dauntless initiate. Should she fail to pass muster, she’ll be left factionless — homeless, penniless, purposeless, and unloved. Then, of course, there’s her blossoming crush on her mentor Four, a super cute older guy played by Theo James.
If that sounds like a lot to cover, it is, and the movie struggles to keep all those plates spinning at once. Just as we think we’re getting somewhere with Tris’s endless training sessions, the focus abruptly shifts to a sinister plot masterminded by a villain (Kate Winslet) from an outside faction. Key information — like why Divergents are so dangerous — is kept under wraps for no good narrative reason, and then revealed haphazardly. Certain characters establish their importance early on and then disappear for most of the movie; others are continually present but have nothing to do.
All that clunky plotting leaves Burger with little time or energy for world-building, so Tris’s Chicago never truly feels real. It looks like a generic sci-fi dystopia built on a soundstage and fine-tuned by computers — Panem’s outer Districts without the personality — and operates under murky rules. Is Tris and Four’s love forbidden, or do they just enjoy their privacy? What does the general population know about Divergents, exactly? Are citizens allowed to travel freely between factions? We never know, because the movie never bothers to consider such details.
Thankfully, it does make an effort to deliver on the action. Divergent includes many thrillingly shot sequences, including one in which gleeful Tris ziplines across the Chicago skyline. Burger also conjures up some vivid imagery for several scenes that take place entirely within the characters’ “fear landscapes” — drug-induced renderings of their worst nightmares — though they stop short of actually being scary.
What really holds the movie together, though, are a pair of lively star turns. Woodley is perfectly cast as Tris, exhibiting a beguiling mix of modesty and boldness. We understand both why she’s continually underestimated, and why the other characters are stupid to underestimate her. Woodley brings real emotion to the proceedings, keeping Tris grounded even as the story around her loses its focus. And she’s well matched by James, who adds warmth and personality to a well-worn archetype.
They’re characters I wouldn’t mind seeing in another movie or three, which is fortunate since Summit already has the sequel scheduled for next spring. Divergent likely won’t make Hunger Games numbers (very few movies do) and it’s certainly not as good as the first Hunger Games was. But there are worse places for Tris to live than in Katniss’s shadow. The good news about Divergent is that it has a solid core in Woodley and James. The rest of its issues could conceivably be fixed or at least improved. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Insurgent will be worthier of these stars’ talents.
/Film rating: 5.0 out of 10.0