By Scott Harvey
Divergent comes amidst what seems to be a veritable plethora of teenage sci-fi/fantasy films adapted from popular novels, a trend started, of course, by The Hunger Games, but also films like The Mortal Instruments, I Am Number Four, Ender’s Game, and the upcoming The Maze Runner. While Divergent undoubtedly owes much to Suzanne Collins’s incredibly popular tales, it is also original and unique enough to succeed on its own merits.
The story is set in a futuristic Chicago that is split up into five factions, each with its own defining characteristics. Amity is a gentle clan of farmers who cultivate the land, Erudite is reserved for those intellectually superior individuals, Candor is for the brutally honest, Dauntless for the brave, and Abnegation for the selfless.
The main character, Tris (Shailene Woodley, a.k.a. redheaded Jennifer Lawrence), is a young girl living with her Abnegation parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort). At the beginning of the film, we see her, along with all other Chicago teens of a certain age, forced to take an aptitude test to determine the faction for which she is best suited. But when Tris is finished with the test, she receives a shocking result from her administrator Tori (an icy cool Maggie Q). Tris’s test matched her with three factions: Erudite, Dauntless, and Abnegation, rather than the traditional one. What this means for our heroine is that she is “divergent” and in danger for reasons of which she is not yet aware. The situation is only magnified when Tris chooses to leave her family and become a part of Dauntless, where she is subjected to brutal training from instructors Eric (Jai Courtney) and Four (Theo James), who almost immediately feels a connection with Tris.
Divergent is well cast, with Woodley a sturdy heroine and James her sufficiently smoldering paramour. Unfortunately, some of the supporting cast is underutilized, notably the effortlessly charismatic Miles Teller, who was so good alongside Woodley in last year’s The Spectacular Now, yet is saddled with a dull, one-dimensional character in this film. Kate Winslet also appears as villainous Erudite leader Jeanine and does the sort of calculated overacting that a movie like this thrives on.
At 140 minutes, Divergent is too long, with several unnecessary subplots, but its action climax is riveting, the strongest part of the film. At its finest, Divergent successfully captures the sort of life-or-death intensity that makes The Hunger Games films so compelling, namely in one tense scene where Tris is administered her final test to become a Dauntless, during which she must confront her worst fears without revealing that she is divergent. And, surprisingly, the film’s central romance is not as groan-worthy as I feared, thanks in large part to James, who nicely underplays his role, never trying too hard to make the audience fall in love with him. I can’t say that I bought every single element of the film’s complicated setup, but I also think that calling it a watered down Hunger Games is not fair to Veronica Roth, who wrote the novel off which Divergent is based. There are enough good ideas here to buoy what will unquestionably be a blockbuster trilogy of films.