2014 - 140 minutes
Directed by: Neil Burger
Written by: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Tony Goldwyn, Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson, Maggie Q, Ansel Elgort
The iron is hot for young adult novel adaptations, and multiplexes are filling with films looking to capitalize on the craze. But for every Hunger Games, there’s been a Mortal Instruments or The Host to remind us that success is not guaranteed.
Divergent offers an example for everything that can go wrong when translating a multiple-installment story from the page to the screen. The film is all setup for what is planned to come in sequels, more universe-building necessity than engaging work of cinema. There is no joy in the storytelling, only a desire to get through the pedestrian bits, banking that it’ll be enough to satiate the targeted demographic with moving pictures of their beloved book. This makes for a middling slog, and one that even manages to mangle the basics.
In “The Future,” after “The War,” the city of Chicago is in partial ruin. Citizens are split into five factions: Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Erudite (the intelligent), Abnegation (the selfless), and Dauntless (the brave). Based on their characteristics, each group is assigned a specific role: altruistic Abnegation runs the government, the fearless Dauntless are security, et cetera. Young adults take a test that identifies their proper faction, but they are given the ultimate choice of which group to join. Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), daughter of prominent Abnegation members (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), displays characteristics of multiple factions; an outcome called “Divergent.” Hiding her test result, Beatrice chooses to join Dauntless, where she’s trained for combat by the hunky Four (Theo James) and the unpleasant Eric (Jai Courtney). Beatrice (who renames herself Tris) struggles with the physicality of becoming a Dauntless, but excels in the simulated problem solving tests. Her complicated nature draws interest from Erudite representative Jeanine (a miscast and disinterested Kate Winslet), who is planning a coup d'état against the ruling Abnegation. A plan which includes discovering dangerous Divergents.
Goofy, impractical, and impossible dystopian future scenarios can work as long as they make sense within their self-contained rules. Divergent doesn’t. There are myriad questions about the workings of this implausible society that go unanswered or are addressed via clunky dialogue. You wonder why someone has to choose a faction and what happens if they’re not a fit. Well, we’re told they become “factionless” – basically forgotten homeless wretches. What each of the factions does remains a mystery, too – there’s no sense of Dauntless keeping the peace or Erudite solving problems. What does a Candor do all day, browbeat others into telling the truth as we see Peter (Miles Teller) doing in an early scene? Director Neil Burger shoves any of the societal workings aside for what amounts to an extended training sequence with Tris, Peter, Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and other new Dauntless recruits being put through their paces.
The major conflict comes with Tris’ problems adapting to her new surroundings, using her lack of fighting skills and Divergent characteristics as clumsy metaphor for finding your place in the world. For Dauntless this means donning sleek black leather clothes, getting piercings, and getting tattooed. The evil government overthrow plot feels like an afterthought with a few scenes tossed in throughout a protracted 140-minute runtime to occasionally remind us there is more to this world than knife training and games of capture the flag at a decrepit Navy Pier. With all general tomfoolery from Dauntless it’s a wonder how anyone in town feels safe. Though, as a resident of present-day Chicago, I do think the city needs to explore the idea of a zip-line from the roof of the Hancock Building.
Of course there are other necessities, such as a budding romance between Tris and Four and reveals about Abnegation leaders, which are roughly sketched here and, I would assume, explored further in sequels. What that leaves us with is only tedious foundation that never finds the proper pacing to sustain interest, not only in what’s to come, but in what’s happening now. Despite a strong turn from Woodley as Tris, her character is a shallow cipher for which the ills of society to flow through. Even in a tacked-on action-y climax, she isn’t allowed to showcase the type of bravura that defines Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.
In time, silly mind-control string hokum is introduced, contradicting our sympathizing with Divergent Tris and the threat of Jeanine, who views free will as a danger to the tenuous ideal. But, when this mind control is proven to work against certain members of society, doesn’t that at least partially prove the villain right? Who knows? The rules are made up as we go along to fit with in-the-moment narrative necessity. It’s possible the story will blossom in future installments, but Divergent doesn’t offer much hope.
© 2014 by Blake Crane