– Summary –
Director : Neil Burger
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Ben Lloyd-Hughes.
Approx Running Time : 139 Minutes
Synopsis: In a dystopian future, society has split into five differing “factions”, each with their own unique focus. One girl discovers that she’s “divergent”, not fitting into any of the five factions and thus creating a problem for the ruling class.
What we think : Divergent borders on terrible, thanks to iffy scripting and a prerequisite to adhere to the PG sensibility of its Young Adult tone, but is rescued (barely) by charismatic leading performances from Shailene Woodley (who seems suspiciously similar to The Hunger Games’ Jennifer Lawrence for my liking) and co-star Theo James (who might as well be listed as Man Hunk #2 for all his character registers with the audience). While it offers some tantalizing concepts and delivers plenty of typically apocryphal futurism (seriously, why can’t we all just get along?), Divergent never really delivers, and remains standing wistfully in the shadows of its much more successful predecessors.
The world could do without this Hunger Games clone.
I don’t know about you, but the glut of “young hero/heroine trying to change the fabric of a society which treads on human freedom” routine is starting to get very old. I guess with the success of The Hunger Games (and the lack of new Twilight) the world is crying out for more Young Adult fiction to be transmogrified into film – not. Honestly, the shadow of that much more iconic franchise looms large over Divergent, a shadow the film never quite escapes, limping across the finish line at the end of some two hours and change of mild romance, inadequate action and an honest, menacing performance from chief villain Kate Winslet. The target audience for Divergent will probably lap up all the film has to offer about repression, conforming and rebellion (because all teens want to explore those aspects of themselves, apparently), and no doubt drive the box office for this thing into inevitable sequel world, but as hard pressed as I was to try and enjoy it all, in the end I just felt bored. Divergent skips digging into the human condition with any sense of meaningful exploration, content to skid along on its teen-centric conflict and sense of competitiveness to succeed (in fact, the film’s opening half is almost identical in narrative aesthetic to The Hunger Games to the point I had to check the label on my ticket to make sure I was watching the right film!) and never really blazing its own trail.
Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) lives in a dystopian future Chicago, where society has separated into individual, isolationist “factions” based on human virtues. Living with her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), as well as her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Beatrice undergoes an aptitude test to determine which faction she will eventually go to, although this test proves inconclusive, a sign she may be a “divergent” – someone who doesn’t conform to any of the factions and who could possibly undermine the successful continuance of society. After choosing to go to Dauntless, a faction serving as the guardians/police of the city, Beatrice takes the name “Triss”, and begins her rigorous training. Those who fail to meet the standards set by Dauntless’ instructor, Eric (Jai Courtney), are kicked out of the faction to become effectively homeless. While in Dauntless, she meets the arrogant and distant Four (Theo James), who aides her training. However, Tris soon learns that there is a plan by the leader of the Erudite faction, Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), to overthrow the current ruling faction and weed out those she perceives to be the weaker of their society.
The recipe for Hollywood success seems fairly simple. Write a successful series of books – in this instance, the widely popular (apparently) Divergent Trilogy, by Veronica Roth – throw several million dollars at a studio to make it, cast a bunch of attractive and likeable actors in key roles, and watch the fangirl cash just roll on in. Divergent, the first in a planned trilogy of films (unless Summit take the Harry Potter/Hunger Games/Twilight route and stretch the final book into two or more films, just for “artistic flexibility”, haw!) follows the Young Adult template to the letter, a blithely adequate adaptation of a book looking to fill the hole of the inevitable Hunger Games conclusion. While it can’t find anything new to bring to the screen in terms of the world in which its set (I’ve already mentioned the rather eerie similarities to The Hunger Games, haven’t I?) at least it diverts attention from its deficiencies by making the cast passably entertaining. Although, knowing the film’s story is this predictable makes me less keen to see a sequel or two than I wanted.
Divergent’s premise takes its sweet time setting up, what with a number of different factions deciding the rules everyone must live by, and for some reason making kids chose which path they shall take for the rest of their lives, forever forsaking their family in the name of the faction. The first half of the film is spent developing what can only be a franchise of films, which kills momentum stone dead since the plot doesn’t really take hold until the second hour. Yeah, the second hour. All we get in the first half is a wimpy, wishy-washy Tris trying to “be like the big boys” with her fight training, weapons skills and conflict negotiation (ha!), all to give us the sense that she’s going on some emotional and physical journey which will hold her in good stead for whatever trials lay ahead. Much like Tris in a key dream sequence, the film becomes bogged in the quicksand of its own importance, trying to shoehorn in as much story to its piffling ideology without bringing any genuine emotional weight to Tris’s arc. Woodley, as Tris, gives a mighty account of herself, yes, and is aided by a cast of fresh faced newcomers (although co-star Zoe Kravitz has already trod the boards of a major franchise with her appearance in X-Men: First Class) and some old stayers, such as Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn, the latter utterly ineffectual as Tris’s father. Judd personifies the maternal strength needed for the eventual tragedy (yeah, Tris doesn’t spend long with her parents in this movie), as a catalyst for Tris’ emotional journey to project forward, and both she and Woodley have a nice chemistry together.
Also doing a good job is Kate Winslet, as chief architect of the film’s antagonistic crucible. Winslet is deliciously evil here, not hiss-at-the-screen so much as believing she’s doing the right thing when we all know she’s not. It’s not as well rounded a villain as it could have been, I guess, but serves the relatively watered down plot well as a foil to Tris’s arc. Woodley’s main co-star, hunky Theo James, barely registers as a character more than he does as simply a dreamboat with a great voice – at least, I estimate this film will find him categorized in the same vein as Taylor Lautner’s abs – better to be seen than expect anything convincing. James and Woodley have a solid screen chemistry together, and perhaps I’m a little embarrassed by just how good looking the dude is, but if he’s the leader of a rebel cause then I’m a flying donkey. Watch for Aussie actor Jai Courtney as the Dauntless lieutenant with a thing for making initiates squirm; his role is threadbare but, similarly to Winslet, delivers the goods enough to avoid the main focus of criticism.
The film has a major problem with both pacing and tone. An inordinate amount of time is spent getting all the players into their places for the Final Battle (because there’s always a Final Battle in these films, right?) and the mid-section nearly buckled under the weight of half-developed secondary characters, and a weirdly inconsequential “capture the flag” war game played out by the Dauntless gang. Things happen in this film for no real reason other than to spend more money on visual effects – Tris’s slingshot flying fox between the ruined skyscrapers of Chicago is a case for the prosecution: what does it bring to the film other than mild excitement in between the scowling and posturing? – while the cast is generally wasted on terrible fight sequences and “battles” at the end. Neil Burger, who helmed the decent Limitless, and the terrific The Illusionist, can’t muster any energy in the sequences of action, from fight routines that look like schoolyard fist-bumping to vaguely Holocaust-esque terror as the Dauntless faction subjugates the rest against their will ready to execute them all, each moment delivered with the potency of watery jelly and the impact of a thrown flower. Divergent lacked energy, although it would appear not for lack of trying. I just don’t think Burger knows how to shoot action, with his camera all over the place and disorienting the audience with random edits and weird angles. Plus, in keeping with the PG rating, there’s virtually no blood anywhere to be found, something that doesn’t sit well inside such a violent story!
I was hoping for something different in Divergent. Its very title indicated it might be a film that strayed off the familiar path – sadly, this isn’t the case. Divergent’s been-there, done-that plot and predictable, rote characters, as well as a lethargic sense of pacing and awful “franchise building” scaffolding, render the film as inert as a week-old shit on the porch. Although flashy and filled with some nice visual cues, the film cannot overcome the sense of restraint and perplexing inadequacy radiating from behind the camera. It’s an obtuse film, a slow-clap in an empty auditorium with the audience already fifteen steps ahead. It’s annoying, really, when the film’s outcome is predicted early in the opening act, meaning most of the “surprises” aren’t that at all. They’re just obvious (or necessary) roadblocks for the main character to overcome to achieve an outcome. Honestly, this film bored the hell out of me.