Divergent is the first sci-fi/action/coming-of-age film adapted from a young adult novel to be released this year. For those keeping track, we still have The Giver, The Maze Runner, and The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay – Part 1 to look forward to in 2014. I say this because these types of films have formed their own sub-genre at this point, akin to the big-budget superhero films of recent years. Not all of these book-to-film adaptations have been super successful in the way Marvel and DC superhero films have (but you should check out Beautiful Creatures, because it is solid), but some of these tend to still feel like the next big thing. I am not sure what future lies ahead of Divergent and the other potential films adapted from Veronica Roth’s book series, but this first film seems to at least be satisfying for fans of the book who will see it no matter what and could be enjoyable for those who are not tired of this sub-genre or are diving into it for the first time.
Tris: Don’t try and define me.
It is interesting to go into a film like this with fresh eyes, as I have not read any of the books in this series. I do admire various members of the cast and crew, which is ultimately what attracted me to the film, along with the fact that I enjoy a good ol’ dystopian future society just like anyone does. In any case, this is the kind of movie that will live or die off what the fans have to say, rather than critics, as they are going to show up regardless and the film will either make a ton of money because they loved it, will keep seeing it, and will tell others to see it, or the core fan base will go see it, leave, and then sit around, hoping another one comes along, despite being just okay with what this initial entry had to offer. Still, while I, again, have not read Divergent, it feels like a movie that both faithfully brings to life the best-selling novel and highlights apparent problems that clearly exist in the logic of its world.
Fortunately, while the internal logic of Divergent’s world is not anymore ludicrous than that of beloved sci-fi classics or even cult favorites, the way it keeps it all together in the form of two charismatic lead actors and general confidence in the visual filmmaking is what keeps the film engaging. The story is set in a futuristic Chicago, which is partially in ruins, but is surrounded by a fence to keep out things that are either really bad or something so awesome that the Chicago governing system needs to keep the population unaware of it (I am sure the other books likely delve into this). In order to keep a balanced and peaceful society, the population is divided into 5 different factions, based on their personalities. These factions include smart folk, loud mouths, hobo helpers, farmers, and stunt people. Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) discovers that she is Divergent, meaning that she does not fit into any one society, but must also keep this a secret, as Divergent’s are seen as threats to the way of life.
There are a lot more rules and concepts set up in this film, which is fairly standard for the first in a series comprised of three books. As opposed to something like The Hunger Games though, Divergent actually has a lot more in common with the first Harry Potter film. We have a character that is essentially one of the chosen ones who goes through a whole training and schooling process, with the establishment of various friends and foes, before the arbitrary need for some kind of plot in the third act. Still, even at nearly two and a half hours, Divergent does not do a great a job at world-building as it should. Rather than exploring the societal aspects and possibly providing a better understanding the logic of a faction-populated system, we watch Tris proceed through her training with the Dauntless group, who are basically a bunch of hipster parkour enthusiasts. They wear nothing but black and get to walk on the wild side though, so yay for them.
Here is where I run into the issue of assuming I will learn more about the other factions and more about the world of this series in its sequels, assuming they happen, but that is a cheat. There are questions I have and problems that seem clear to me in the very premise of the film, but at the same time, I am happy to acknowledge a number of things that worked for me in Divergent, as it certainly has more on its mind than just looking cool and providing beautiful people doing stunts and heading into inevitable romances.
The biggest asset this film has is Shailene Woodley as Tris. While nearly every other character is fairly one-dimensional, Tris is our heroine and she has an arc and the ability to grow. It helps that Woodley is incredibly talented, but the film even provides a depiction of her growth in action, which comes in the form of learning and training through hard work, rather than Divergent mystic powers or something (though her status as a Divergent does come in handy). As the film is basically an underdog story about a girl rising to the challenge, it almost had me satisfied enough with what I learned about this world, due to only seeing it through Tris’ perspective, but it does not take away from my issues with the overall plotting.
From a visual standpoint, director Neil Burger is able to make a good-looking film, which obviously does not have a huge budget, given some noticeable limits, and it even moves at a decent pace. Given that Divergent is trying to push it themes about being independent, thinking for yourself, and facing your fears, I did enjoy the portrayal of a portion of the second act involving Tris going through some particular tests. It is that final act, which basically occurs because it was scripted too, rather than feeling like an organic development in the story (throwaway lines of dialogue don’t count), that really takes the film down for me. After we go through all the training stuff, the film basically makes it seem worthless, based on a new development that puts the film into action mode. Again, it is well shot and suitably tense, but it all feels very perfunctory and quite silly based on who is involved with what.
The film, as a whole, stands as pretty perfunctory, supplemented by minor wins it scored for itself. Woodley is great, as I mentioned, and some of the other cast members bring more than just a decent representation of what I am sure people loved about these characters in the book. Theo James’ character Four, in particular, actually seems to be trying and has more to offer in terms of chemistry with Woodley, beyond being suitably handsome, while brooding. I just wish this movie was able to impress me, rather than just feeling like a standard first entry in a series that has me mildly interested in where it goes.
Jeanine Matthews: The future belongs to those who know where they belong.