There has been much made in the press as of late about whether this weekend’s Divergent is the next Hunger Games film franchise. There has also been an equal amount of hand-wringing over whether Divergent’s Tris Prior is another Katniss Everdeen. Well, I can safely say that I’ve seen The Hunger Games, I know The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games was an enjoyable blockbuster experience of mine, and Divergent, you’re no Hunger Games.
With that said, for fans of the Veronica Roth source material, Divergent will be as comfortable as form fitting leather garments (all the rage in the movie’s dystopian Chicago). Unfortunately, at least in the film’s hands, there seems to be something very off about that said material.
Set well into the future, an unknown war has apparently left most of North America ravaged and desolate, save for a supposed utopia of peaceful coexistence behind “the Fence” in the ruins of Ditka country. It is there that society has been divided into five neat categories meant to starve the populace out of any sense of individual identity or achievement, thereby creating an orderly citizenry. At the age of 16, every boy and girl is given an aptitude test to gauge which faction they belong to: Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (honest), Dauntless (brave), or Erudite (intelligent). Beyond acting like a beautiful five-starred SAT prep question, the factions are also color-coded and helpfully divided like high school cliques in the cafeteria during feeding hours. Abnegation are the hippies in flowing gray robes, the Erudite are the nerds in their navy blue suits and blouses, Dauntless are the rebel greasers and punks in black leather and tattoos, and so on. You just don’t want to be “factionless,” because those losers don’t get a color and aren’t allowed to sit at anyone’s table.
It is in this world that Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is born and where at the age of 16 she must choose. However, an inconceivable anomaly occurs when she takes the aptitude test and discovers that she is not defined by one thing, but by many: she is Abnegation like her save-the-earth do-gooding parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd in thankless roles), Erudite like the faction her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) ultimately chooses, and finally Dauntless. She is divergent. On the big day, where every local 16-year-old kid is forced to make a choice by cutting their hand with the same knife above five pots (this unsanitary ceremony must be great way to induce population control), Beatrice’s brother leaves his folks to become Erudite, and Beatrice chooses to become Dauntless, despite her nice aptitude test taker (Maggie Q) marking her down as Abnegation. Immediately whisked away from a mom and dad, who she’ll never be allowed to see again, much of the rest of the film is Tris (her new name) being schooled in the matters of soldiering by Dauntless Uber-Hunk “Four” (Theo James), and then being schooled in other extracurricular activities by the naughty teacher. Also, there is a mysterious villain, but as Kate Winslet’s Jeanine Matthew, the leader of the Erudites, all but cackles in the wings as she rubs her hands together, it’s not really that much of a mystery.
The ultimate hurdle that Divergent spends its complete 139-minute running time mightily struggling against is that the entire world it builds, a collage of a hundred other pop culture images, never quite makes a satisfying whole. Worse still, Divergent never convinces the uninitiated to buy into this dystopia in spite of its indulgent and meandering pacing, which is at least a half hour too long. There is an argument to be made that the oft-contrasted Hunger Games bears more than a passing resemblance to the Japanese cult classic Battle Royale (and at least a dozen pre-Star Wars science fiction films). But for all of the criticisms posited at author Suzanne Collins, as well as director Gary Foster, for the first picture, that movie creates an immediate and mesmerizing illusionary reality from its very first shaky, lived-in rustic frame. Conversely, Divergent opens on an exposition dump delivered in breathless monotone voiceover by Woodley’s Tris, yet never actually grounds its clichés—including Christopher Nolan-styled dream machines and a “Fence” that would do George R.R. Martin proud—in anything more than obligatory dialogue delivered by a supporting cast barely preventing their eyes from glazing over.
The all-under-30 Dauntless faction does not conjure up the iconography of warriors so much as a co-ed fraternity that’s watched a lot of Fight Club and Tony Hawk video games, and has taken what they’ve learned to the streets. This isn’t a dystopian vision of a socialist collective stripping away the individual’s independence and identity; it’s freshman year at a college dorm. The effect is that rather than emulating the obviously influential novel The Giver by Lois Lowry (which will also be hitting the big screen later this year) where children are horrifyingly categorized into life-defining niches, the factions are instead little more than akin to being saddled with a really lame summer camp.
It is difficult to pinpoint whether this fault lies in Veronica Roth’s prose, which I have admittedly not read, or in Neil Burger’s workmanlike direction. While the visual banality does the picture no favors, nor does its already dated pop song-oriented soundtrack, it still feels ultimately rooted in a story that borrows a thousand ideas, but never has a unique one to offer in binding them together.
Shailene Woodley, who was a revelation in her Golden Globe nominated role for The Descendents, and who offered appealing star potential in last year’s teen dramedy The Spectacular Now, neither hurts nor helps Divergent. She serviceably provides a protagonist with whom the target demographic can relate, and one who is reliably rebellious in her refusal to conform or bend to authority. However, if this is meant to be her launching pad to superstardom, it may have more to do with the franchise’s demographic appeal than her requisite performance that does not glimpse the light she has radiated in past work. Indeed, in her all-too-brief confrontations with Winslet’s wolfish Jeanine, the movie finally comes alive as Winslet takes her one-dimensional villain and fleetingly imbues this movie with something approximating entertainment.
While exiting the theater after my screening, two clearly avid fans of Roth’s writings were debating the merits of the film as they headed for the door. They seemed to both like the movie, but found a point of contention over whether Tris’ drug-induced nightmare sequences worked or not, because in the book Tris showcases seven phobias, while in the film she appears to have merely four. If this marks an issue of great importance to you, Divergent is probably exactly what is desired, too few nightmare sequences notwithstanding. However, many more moviegoers will find themselves factionless as this cinematic wasteland sprawls out for the inevitable sequel.