Divergent Movie Review Essay

The latest edition of the novel on which Divergent is based includes a Q&A with author Veronica Roth. Roth, who wrote her young-adult bestseller while she was a 21-year-old undergraduate studying psychology, admits to having a favorite among her characters: Four, or protagonist Tris’ love interest. “To me, he seems to have a rich off-screen life. I can imagine what he’s doing at any given moment, even when he’s not with Tris.”

Unfortunately, this same sense of dynamism cannot be attributed to the film Four (Theo James), or Tris (ShaileneWoodley, gamely doing her best with not so much), or any of the characters populating the new Lionsgate adaptation of Roth’s book. Divergent the movie includes just about every wham-bam moment of the novel, hitting set-piece cues like actors to their marks. This is no mean feat, considering the book is nearly 500 pages long. Screenwriters Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones,” “Alias”) should be acknowledged for their often clever restructuring of the narrative, the logical manner in which they were able to knit together scenes that did not originally follow one another. But in their haste to cram every big and (seemingly) cinematic moment into an overlong 140 minutes, integral moments of character development necessarily fell by the wayside. Consequently, those same events that elicited thrills in the novel, and probably read like gold on the script’s paper, fall terribly, even comically, flat onscreen.

Divergent opens well. There’s a lot of background, terminology and context to get through before the story can begin proper, and Tris’ voiceover explanation of her society’s structure, in which people are divided into one of five factions—the intelligent Erudite, the kind Amity, the honest Candor, the courageous Dauntless, or the selfless Abnegation—gets the job done quickly, while the audience is treated to sweeping visuals of dystopian Chicago. (What happens if your personality does not neatly align with one of the five groups? You live factionless, or homeless and very dirty.) Director Neil Burger has created a world that certainly looks like the one painted by Roth in her novel. Abandoned skyscrapers that are at once towering and crumbling, and the rumbling outdoor trains, off of and onto which the Dauntless jump while the trains are in motion, should please fans of the book and likewise appeal to the uninitiated.

Like all 16-year-olds, Beatrice (as Tris is known when the film opens) and her brother Caleb (AnselElgort) must take an aptitude test whose results are designed to tell them which faction best suits them. Although children are raised in the faction of their parents, they can switch once they’re of age, and do not necessarily need to choose the faction suggested by their aptitude test results, either. The choice is left up to each individual, though once she selects a faction, there’s no going back—the only alternative is to live factionless. Beatrice was raised Abnegation, but questions whether she isn’t too selfish for a life of self-denial. She hopes the aptitude test will resolve her indecision. But, strangely, even dangerously, as Beatrice’s test administrator makes clear, her results are inconclusive. “The test didn’t work on you,” the administrator, Tori (Maggie Q), hisses, before instructing Beatrice not to tell anyone. Ever. To protect Beatrice, Tori manually enters “Abnegation” on her test results.

The day of the Choosing Ceremony arrives and, both shaken and perhaps bolstered by her brother’s surprise decision to “transfer” to the Erudite faction, Beatrice chooses the loud, brash, tattooed, dyed-hair Dauntless. Most of Divergent takes place during Dauntless initiation: Upon arriving at the Dauntless compound, and after having to perform a few typical Dauntless stunts (lots of risking of life and limb involved) to get there, the 16-year-olds are told they will have to pass a series of initiation tests before becoming full members. Oh, and there will be cuts after each round. This is not good news for Beatrice, who has already renamed herself the more badass-sounding “Tris” in a kind of fake-it-’til-you-make-it gesture, as she is among the weakest of her initiation class. Her peers include the pixie-like and overly frank Candor-transfer Christina (Zoe Kravitz), the know-it-all former Erudite Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), the big, kind, slow, ex-Candor Al (Christian Madsen), and another former Erudite, Peter (Miles Teller, hilarious), who, in no time at all, has established himself as Tris’ nemesis. They’re led through initiation by pierced and possibly psychotic Eric (Jai Courtney) and the hunky, reserved and therefore irresistible Four. Between forging new friendships, suffering Peter’s taunts, developing feelings for Four, struggling to make it through initiation, keeping her inconclusive test results hidden, and trying to work out just why the menacing Erudite leader, Jeanine (Kate Winslet, in a role much expanded from the novel), keeps hanging around the Dauntless compound, Tris has a problem or two to contend with.

All of which should make for compelling viewing, but doesn’t. After the initial, quickly paced opening scenes, the film devotes itself to hitting the biggest (which does not always translate to the most important) points of the novel, one after the other, and not much else. The characters, Tris and Four among them, are painted in broad strokes with the minimal amount of shading required to keep them ambulatory. The simplification of every major personality in a story whose moral heft is contingent upon an analysis of human nature is perhaps why Divergent fails to work onscreen. It certainly makes sense, when they had an $80 million budget with which to work and the hopes of a studio gunning for another lucrative Hunger Games franchise at their back, for the filmmakers to almost exclusively depict the splashiest moments of their source material. By forsaking the nuances of character, however, those same scenes that seemed so ripe for cinematic interpretation quickly lose their potency and, paradoxically, their cinematic quality. The latter is predicated upon emotion (no matter how many effects-heavy vehicles Hollywood churns out in an effort to seemingly prove the contrary), and when viewers don’t care about the person they’re watching, they won’t gasp when she faces her worst fears, they won’t shiver when she has her first kiss, they won’t feel exultant when she climbs a Ferris wheel or weep when she suffers loss. If the care is not expended to make the audience care, those grand moments into which all the care was expended will inevitably devolve into at best familiar, and at worst very silly melodrama—which is the unfortunate fate of Divergent, at whose screening titters could be heard during what should have been harrowing moments.

That being said, Theo James is very attractive, Tris has great hair, and Ellie Goulding occupies a place of honor on the soundtrack. The tween-girl demographic that Divergent clearly hopes to attract should be entertained by most of the film, though its two-hour-plus runtime will likely wear on viewers of any age. Above and beyond the current Hunger Games vogue for dystopian actioners starring intrepid girls, there is a lot of cinematic potential inherent in Divergent. Here’s hoping the already scheduled sequel Insurgent picks up the ball dropped by this first attempt.

Shailene Woodley and Theo James topline the first of three features based on novelist Veronica Roth’s postapocalyptic trilogy.

Dystopia is no picnic for most everyone involved, but in the future world of Divergent, it’s especially hard on teens. At the heart of Veronica Roth’s YA bestseller is a provocative existential dilemma involving adolescence and identity: At age 16, everyone must choose which of society’s stringently defined factions they’ll join. That could mean staying on home turf or leaving family far behind, and it’s an irreversible decision. In an era when you’re never too young to not just choose a career but to launch one, it’s an idea with particular resonance.

It’s also an idea that loses much of its potency in the movie adaptation, as director Neil Burger struggles to fuse philosophy, awkward romance and brutal action. Even with star Shailene Woodley delivering the requisite toughness and magnetism, the clunky result is almost unrelentingly grim. Dystopia can be presented in dynamic ways, but this iteration of it is, above all, no picnic for the audience.

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Lukewarm reviews might squelch curiosity among those unfamiliar with the trilogy of books, but the must-see factor among fans will ensure a robust opening for Summit, which has two sequels in the works and the next installment, Insurgent, fast-tracked for early-2015 release.

Like most social science fiction, the story, set in a war-ravaged Chicago in an unspecified future, is propelled by the friction between freethinkers and an authoritarian regime. Protagonist Beatrice Prior (Woodley) faces particular jeopardy because she’s a rare and dangerous bird: a so-called Divergent, who doesn’t fit neatly into one of the prescribed categories that control every aspect of life.

Like the source material, the film begins on the eve of the Choosing Ceremony, as 16-year-old Beatrice submits to the aptitude test — a personality quiz via drug-induced hallucination — that will tell her which faction suits her best. The inconclusive results alarm her tester (a well-cast Maggie Q), who warns her never to tell a soul that she’s Divergent. Being uncategorizable makes Beatrice a threat to the social order.

Perhaps reaching too quickly for the epic, the screen adaptation, credited to Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, skimps on setting up the Prior family dynamics, lessening the emotional impact of the ceremony in which both Beatrice and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), opt to transfer out of Abnegation, the faction of the selfless. Beatrice has never felt as naturally charitable as her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), and her face lights up whenever she sees the Dauntless, the brave ones who snarl and rollick like a bunch of punk rockers; they’re as boisterous and defiant as the members of Abnegation are low-key and self-effacing.

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Beatrice’s first moments with her new tribe bear out the sense of thrills and danger she observed from a distance. Jumping from a moving train — the Dauntless way of arriving, and one of the film’s best sequences — she gets to experience the kinetic physicality long denied her. (The rusted-out but still functioning elevated trains are a standout component of Andy Nicholson’s production design.)

But soon after Beatrice joins the Dauntless, and redubs herself Tris, she finds that train jumping, building scaling and other wild behavior isn’t the choice of free spirits but the requirement of soldiers in training. The subterranean Pit that serves as Dauntless HQ is a bleak place, devoid of humor or brightness — as is the movie.

Tris’ martial indoctrination takes up much of the first hour, putting her in a number of punishing mano-a-mano bouts with other initiates. Those who don’t prove their mettle will end up among the “factionless,” outcasts subsisting on the streets of a city where you can never go home again.

Instructor Four (a commanding Theo James, of Underworld: Awakening) takes an interest in Tris and her survival, mitigating the merciless demands of leader Eric (Jai Courtney). Predictably, things steam up: Four shows Tris his tattoo and, in an act of real intimacy, invites her into his chemically produced nightmare, the better to prepare her for the final hurdle in her training: a fear test that’s an obvious variation on Room 101 in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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In small roles, some of which will probably take on greater weight in the next film, Mekhi Phifer and Ray Stevenson play faction leaders, and Zoe Kravitz and Miles Teller are two initiates from Candor (faction of the truth tellers).

Kate Winslet shows up in icy-blonde mode as Jeanine, a ferocious proponent of the brave new world’s social engineering and leader of the Erudite, the brainy faction that’s waging a campaign to discredit the ruling Abnegation. (The peaceful Amity faction barely registers in the film.) A conversation between Jeanine and Tris offers a few moments of refreshingly sublimated hostility. Otherwise, such high-wire tension is MIA as nearly every exchange hits the nail squarely on the head (echoing the plain prose of the book).

Carlo Poggioli brings a utilitarian expressiveness to the color-coded faction outfits, while Nicholson’s sets excel at industrial grunge; Chicago’s Navy Pier and its Ferris wheel make for a vivid abandoned amusement park. In general, though, the postwar cityscape feels generic, captured in straightforward widescreen images by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler, who created a far more affecting sense of dystopian malaise in the underappreciated Code 46.

The score by Junkie XL (Hans Zimmer is credited as executive score producer) is rousing when appropriate and mostly unobtrusive, unlike the tone-deaf use of indie-pop and techno tracks at key points in the action (Randall Poster is the music supervisor).

Woodley, a sensitive performer, is hamstrung by the screenplay but lends her role relatability and a convincing athleticism. Burger and Kuchler’s unfortunate preference for mascara-ad close-ups, however, detracts from the character’s grit.

In the hands of Burger, whose credits include The Illusionist and Limitless, the story’s elements of spectacle, decay, symbolism and struggle only rarely feel fully alive. Lackluster direction in the early installments of other YA franchises hasn’t slowed their momentum, though. Divergent will be no exception.

Opens: Friday, March 21 (Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment)
Production: Red Wagon Entertainment
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet
Director: Neil Burger
Screenwriters: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor
Based on the novel by Veronica Roth
Producers: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian
Executive producers: John J. Kelly, Rachel Shane
Director of photography: Alwin Kuchler
Production designer: Andy Nicholson
Music: Junkie XL
Executive score producer: Hans Zimmer
Co-producer: Veronica Roth
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editors: Richard Francis-Bruce, Nancy Richardson
PG-13; 139 minutes

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