Surprise, surprise…Hollywood is back in copycat mode once again as it sniffs out yet another opportunity to piggyback on a current film genre with momentum. In this case, the action-packed chronicles of a young diva dystopian drama in the tradition of the highly popular The Hunger Games franchise that is meant to tap into the mindset of teens/young adults. The immediate comparison between director Neil Burger’s (“Limitless”, “The Lucky Ones”) Divergent and the aforementioned The Hunger Games was inevitable. However, Divergent wishes it had nearly the imagination, creativity and angst-ridden scope as its obvious competitor in Games. The theme of a teenage heroine stepping up to the plate as she challenges the authority’s status quo in the name of the disillusioned masses has that “been there, done that” cynical sentiment.
Although Divergent tries to make its own mark as a futuristic action adventure that advocates how youthful minds should embrace their individuality and think independently the movie conveys such contemplation in a cold, arbitrary manner without much conviction or distinction.
Divergent manages to showcase an occasional flashiness that incorporates intriguing chase scenes, animated fight sequences and some visual vibrancy but this is all incidental to a flat and familiarized story that has been executed more coherently elsewhere. Naturally young audiences will eat this frenetic fable up in indiscriminate fashion but others will be wondering why this anemic popcorn pleaser fails to have a deeper connection to its mediocre material.
Divergent is based upon Veronica Roth’s best-selling book from her popular literary trilogy. Whereas The Hunger Games had its feisty female lead in Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen (a very catchy name incidentally) Divergent boasts Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) as Beatrice “Tris” Prior. Tris is somewhat colorful in defiance but definitely does not shine the kinetic boots of her butt-kicking rival Katniss. In any event, Tris resides in the future city of Chicago racked with ruination and set apart from the rest of the world to wallow in its meager existence behind closed walls. Tris lives with her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) and twin brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort). Fortunately, Tris and her family’s living arrangement seems more viable than that of her fellow residents that are struggling to survive.
In the Priors’ societal elements, the rule of thumb for the Chicagoan community to exist and work together are based on the principles of splitting factions divided into defining categories. The skill set for the five main categories of “work ethic” and “personality profiling” are Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peacemakers), Candor (honest), Dauntless (the brave) and Erudite (intelligent). For the record, Tris and her relatives fall into the abnegation grouping. The decision for 16-year olds in this particular society is crucial as they must choose what category to identify with as they approach the age where they are expected to separate from family and venture out on their own. Tris is presented with such a decision-one that she must abide by at the Choosing Ceremony and stick with unconditionally. How can Tris and her contemporaries cope with this ritualistic juggernaut of a life-changing choice? Simply, she will just have to deal with her situation at hand.
Tris harbors a threatening secret that could tilt her world upside down within her community-she is a Divergent (qualified for any of the five major factions/groupings but not belonging to any of them exclusively). In other words, Tris is a badass babe-in-the-woods that could present a serous problem to the controlling elite that discourage skilled rebellious standouts. Nevertheless, Tris selects the Dauntless group where she is able to express her bravery and physicality through daring stunts such as leaping from speeding subway trains or diving from high sky high spots. Her family are concerned about her provocative preference for peril as she has the need to maintain order in a ragtag crew of fearless participants. Among Tris’s Dauntless daredevil cohorts include Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Peter (Miles Teller) and reckless showoff instructor Eric (Jai Courtney). Four (Theo James) is the chiseled trainer charged with overseeing the extensive workout that Tris and her fellow trainees receive.
In a way, Tris joining the Dauntless team is liberating because she can actually confront her fears and push herself to the limit. In contrast her sibling Caleb opted for the uppity Erudite faction led by the stone-faced Jeanine (Oscar winner Kate Winslet). The opportunistic Jeanine has a selfish agenda to uphold; she wants to seize power through her Erudite leadership at the expense of sacrificing the Dauntless combatants to achieve her sinister plan. Oh yeah…it is safe to say that Jeanine is not necessarily an ardent fan of Divergent personalities either. Instinctively, Tris wants to empower the people that already feel defeated and detached and eradicate Divergents at all costs.
There is a lot riding on Tris’s burdened shoulders. Can she continue to shelter her Divergent tendencies without compromising her safety or that of her family’s welfare? Will Tris keep in perspective her professional relationship with the hunkish Four or allow her romantic affections for him expand beyond their teacher-student association? How can Tris stop the dastardly Jeanine from her power-hungry proclivities over an already skeptical society? Is the conflict between Tris’s Dauntless bond and Caleb’s Erudite allegiance going to split her family emotionally and psychologically?
Divergent raises some compelling points and does have an interesting take on the growing pains of young kids coming into adulthood but not without the heavy-handed obstacles that they need to hurdle over both figuratively and literally. Still, the movie stumbles and is not able to fully carry out its serving of youthful feminine teen empowerment vibes. There is no freshness or unique spin in the routine message this stilted suspense piece wants to deliver so giddily. As a filmmaker Burger has the resourcefulness for sophistication, spark, style and a sense of nostalgic time and place (witness his vastly underrated The Illusionist for instance) but in Divergent he merely goes through the motions in a disjointed drama that feels relentlessly drab. Screenwriters Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty concoct a strained story that labors at capturing Roth’s vision of challenged authority but nothing really registers with specialized relish or punch. Woodley is a spunky and capable performer who shows tremendous promise as the chaotic and combative cutie but she is bogged down in a grainy thriller that trudges along without much depth.
Time will tell if Divergent can overcome the pop cultural overshadowing of The Hunger Games’ influence and pick up the mantle once its expected sequels Insurgent (scheduled for 2015) and Allegiant (scheduled for 2016) hits the big screen in the near future. In the meantime, let the vicious vixens Beatrice Prior and Katniss Everdeen duke it out until another dueling dollface comes along to settle the score.
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Miles Teller, Kate Winslet, Tony Goldwyn, Zoe Kravitz, Jai Courtney
Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty
Lionsgate Films/Summit Entertainment
CRITIC’S RATING: ** stars (out of 4 stars)