Just once in the ever popular genre of young adult literary adaptations, it would be nice to see a young woman protagonist who isn’t a “chosen one” type, doesn’t fall in love with the forbidden hunk, and resists teaming with him to take down an oppressive evil. Though it may seem otherwise, that’s not a spoiler for Divergent as much as an inevitability, a formula that allows it to keep pace with the likes of The Hunger Games while tossing in enough fresh ideas to stand on its own.
Directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist; Limitless) and based on the novel by Veronica Roth, the film plays like a mishmash of its sci-fi teen contemporaries. Opening on a shabby futuristic Chicago, narration by Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now) enlightens viewers about an ambiguous war that has decimated everything beyond the city’s protective walls.
From that Panem-like setup, much time (perhaps too much) is invested in explaining how, for the past century, the survivors have achieved peace through dividing into five factions determined by personality types. Beatrice’s family are selfless public servant Abnegation, but there’s also the logical Erudite; hippie, food-growing Amity; and honest Candor. Above all, however, she’s drawn to Dauntless, the city’s protectors who run through the streets as if auditioning for a Michael Jackson music video, climb structures for no apparent reason, and hop aboard and off El trains that seem to be there solely for their transportation.
The conflict between the freedom to join any faction and loyalty to one’s background is grounds for interesting drama and, for the most part, the cast and crew capitalize on that opportunity, though not without nearly self-destructing. With Beatrice and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort, Carrie) going through an elaborate testing process and selection ceremony that makes Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat look like a game of Tic-Tac-Toe, Divergent’s world building is both overly complicated and skimpy on interpersonal dynamics, a formula that will prove as dangerous as its transparent villains.
After inconclusive tests show that she’s the titular label, defying categorization and therefore a threat to society’s order, Beatrice is advised by her conveniently knowledgable tester Tori (Maggie Q, Mission: Impossible III) to keep that status secret lest she be killed. Which faction(s) Beatrice, eventually going by Tris, and Caleb choose and what occurs in those groups is best left unsaid as therein lies the film’s few yet still mild surprises. What’s safe to reveal is that the action involves an initiation process with more than a few echoes of the Ender’s Game academy scenes; Tris’ dull, predictable teacher-student romance with her trainer Four (Theo James, Underworld: Awakening); and occasional refreshing appearances by Kate Winslet as a cold, calculating Erudite.
Living up to that detail-heavy nature throughout its nearly 2.5 hours, Divergent covers so much information that it’s bound to sacrifice interpersonal chemistry and smooth assemblage of the above issues into a workable whole. As such, it’s rarely clear what the obvious covert bad guys know about the greater conspiracy and when confrontations between them and Tris’ resistance pals occur, they come off as false.
Nonetheless, what makes the film a notch or two better than The Hunger Games is its clear message of defying simple categorization and control by remaining an independent person. At times, it feels like Tris might hold up a page from a coloring book and say, “Look, I’m not staying within the lines!” but even with the frequently bland presentation, the concept keeps the story grounded.
Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.
Divergent is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.