Divergent (United States, 2014)

March 20, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Divergent Poster

Divergent is the “next big thing,” or at least so hopes Summit Entertainment. The latest in a growing stream of high-profile YA (Young Adult) sci-fi/fantasy series to make it to the big screen, Divergent is poised to take its place alongside The Hunger Games as “event” movies for the newest powerhouse demographic: girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 25. Although not quite as well-focused as The Hunger Games, Divergent employs many of the same elements: a futuristic post-war setting, a strong heroine, a romance, and a struggle against the oppression inherent in the status quo. Summit Entertainment is so confident of the movie’s success that the studio has already commissioned motion picture versions of the two other novels in Veronica Roth’s series.

The screen story sticks close to the novel’s text - a trend that has become mandatory for YA adaptations with filmmakers leery of omitting fan favorite scenes. The setting is the near future in a Chicago that has been largely depopulated as a result of some kind of global catastrophe. The war has left the skyline largely intact but the tallest building show massive damage. A huge wall has been erected around the city, ostensibly to keep out whatever may live over the horizon but perhaps also to keep the population in. Humans have been divided into five factions based on innate abilities: Erudite, Dauntless, Abnegation, Amity, and Candor. Then there are the “divergents,” those who show an affinity for more than one faction and are hunted because they don’t “fit.” Theoretically, the factions are intended to work together but unrest is brewing. Erudite believes its members should be in charge and are planning a coup to oust Abnegation from the top position.

Divergent’s protagonist is Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), the daughter of two prominent Abnegation leaders: Natalie (Ashley Judd) and Andrew (Tony Goldwyn). We meet her at the time of her testing, when her aptitude for the factions will be assessed. She is revealed to be Divergent with an affinity for Erudite, Dauntless, and Abnegation. She chooses Dauntless and is immediately whisked away to undergo the grueling training necessary to join her new faction. Along the way, she makes friends like Four (Theo James) and Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and enemies like Peter (Miles Teller) and Eric (Jai Courtney). She falls in love with Four while coming under the scrutiny of Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet). And, while trying to hide the truth about her aptitude, she becomes embroiled in the growing Erudite-led revolution.

Divergent is less action-oriented than The Hunger Games but no less compelling. The setting strains credulity at times, although it may be that that the limitations of the movie result in plot holes that are plugged in the novel. (For example, how could a massive undertaking like the wall have been constructed by the relatively small group of humans who appear to live in Chicago?) Divergent also suffers from a weak final half-hour where the need to jump-start the story that will span future installments results in a tone shift and sense of undue haste. It’s a little like Ender’s Game, where the training sequences are more engaging than what happens afterward.

The cast is comprised primarily of “under the radar” performers, all of whom give convincing portrayals. The bigger name, high-profile actors like Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd, are left to fill supporting roles. Shailene Woodley, primarily known as the lead from the long-running TV series, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, gives viewers a relatable Tris who’s easy to root for. Divergent will amplify Woodley’s name recognition, as will her appearance in the upcoming The Fault in Our Stars. Her romantic co-star from The Spectacular Now, Miles Teller (slated to be Mr. Fantastic in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot), plays one of her rivals and their antagonistic chemistry is as strong here as their sexual frisson was in last year’s film. Tris’ love interest, the introverted Four, is played by Theo James, who is excellent at playing the strong, silent type (or, as it used to be known, “tall, dark, and handsome”). Jai Courtney, about to embark into Terminator land, is deliciously nasty.

The things that work in Divergent outweigh its missteps, and it’s hard to say the degree to which the flaws are artifacts of the book-to-screen translation. It’s a lot more difficult to provide the desirable exposition in a screenplay than in a novel and one of the most obvious oversights relates to background and other information about the society. An opening voiceover gives us the basics but a better understanding of the political structure might make the events during the third act seem less sudden and better integrated into the story as a whole. The Hunger Games did a better job of this. It’s a matter of flow.

The futuristic world is impressively realized with CGI turning Chicago’s skyline into a twisted parody of what it looks like today. All the familiar buildings are there but many are broken and damaged. In a way, these images are almost too powerful because they encourage us to want to learn more about the conflict that caused the damage, and Divergent has almost nothing to say about that. From a storytelling perspective, the importance of the war is that it decimated the human population, isolated Chicago, and caused a restructuring of society. Anything else is irrelevant, at least in the movie.

As an entry point into a new world, Divergent provides a worthwhile portal. This is the kind of reality and society that, upon closer examination, could become compulsively watchable. It’s not there yet, although the lengthy middle segment, when Tris trains to become Dauntless while hiding her Divergent nature, is absorbing cinema. Divergent tells a complete story but it’s evident it is intended as part of a greater whole so, to an extent, the film’s complete success can’t be evaluated until the entire trilogy is available. However, at this point, it’s worthy of a recommendation for anyone with a penchant for the genre.

Divergent (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2014-03-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1