Film Review – Divergent
The trend of adapting Young Adult novels unto the big screen continues with Divergent (2014). Directed by Neil Burger, with a screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor (from Veronica Roth’s book), the film is a mixed bag. There are some interesting ideas, although they are well recycled within the sci-fi genre. Despite a good lead performance, what we have is a glossy shell but not much underneath. It lacks substantial foundation to build from – we’re given a glimpse into what’s supposed to be a dystopian future, but everything appears to wobble in place. There’s no sense of history or weightiness, people act only as they are written to.
Granted, a lot may be missed due to the casting of the lead character. Shailene Woodley is a strong young actress, with the ability to tackle a role requiring her to be both tough and vulnerable. Her performance as Beatris (or “Tris”) is better than the material given to her. She has a natural way with her delivery, reacting to everything like a real person would. We’re drawn to her because how she carries herself is believable for someone her age. Compare her to Asa Butterfield’s stiff-as-a-board undertaking in last year’s Ender’s Game (2013) – also adapted from a YA novel – the difference is a mile wide.
The weaknesses don’t lie with Woodley, but within the universe she’s placed in. The plot jumps in and starts running, without establishing the necessary context for us to catch our bearings. We’re brought to Chicago in the distant future, where a great war has devastated the city, forcing the people to create massive walls to keep danger away (what they’re keeping out is never explained). In an effort to control society, people have been broken into different “factions” based on their personalities. We have Abnegation (the selfless, who also govern), Amity (the peaceful), Dauntless (the brave protectors), Erudite (the intelligent), and Candor (the honest). Tris is born into Abnegation.
Law states that when a person turns a certain age, they must choose to either stay with the faction they were born into, or live as one of the others. Prior to making this choice, they take a pretest to see where they may land. Tris’ test results come back inconclusive, making her “Divergent,” or not belonging to a certain faction. This is all pretty hokey, as the importance of the process is never developed. Why must a person take a test if they have the right to make a choice anyway? In fact, a lot is never delved upon, such as: if this is such a broken city with destroyed buildings and wrecked infrastructure, why does everyone dress the same and work with such high tech gadgetry? Shouldn’t the funds to pay for all that go to rebuilding the city? They can create a massive wall but not fix one of their own skyscrapers?
I digress. Seeking to break away from her dreary faction, Tris decides to switch teams and hang out with the cool kids in Dauntless. From there, she goes on an extensive training regimen, pushing her to the limits both physically and mentally. The program is run by two people: the hard ass Eric (Jai Courtney) and Four (Theo James), the hard ass who is actually sweet on the inside. Which of these two do you guess will be Tris’ love interest? The majority of the plot involves Tris’ efforts to survive training and be initiated as a member of Dauntless. The main ideal of the faction is to remove all fear from a person’s psyche. Luckily, given that Tris is actually Divergent, she uses her other abilities to quickly move up the ranks.
The training goes on forever, broken up by intermissions featuring Tris’ romance with Four. It’s a shame this non-conformist falling for her instructor is the meat of the plot. The third act is when things start to pick up, as class warfare breaks out between Erudite (lead by a scene-chewing Kate Winslet) and Abnegation. But by the time we get there, it’s too little too late. So much is spent on Tris and Four that the subsequent action is less natural progression and more written necessity. Did I care about Kate Winslet’s Jeanine, a character whose only purpose is to be the villain? Not really. Did I invest emotionally in Tris’ parents Andrew (Tony Goldwyn) and Natalie (Ashley Judd)? Not particularly. These characters pop up in the plot instead of being a part of it.
Neil Burger does what he can with the direction, but if it weren’t for Shailene Woodley’s central performance, Divergent could have been a lot worse. When the closing credits started to roll, I was left with an empty feeling. It was like a cardboard cut out of this world claiming to be real, when we can easily see the artificiality breaking through the seams.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with stars Miles Teller and Jai Courtney.