The first thirty minutes of Divergent, the first in yet another young adult novel series trying to cash in on the success of The Hunger Games and the lack of Harry Potter in the marketplace, are really incomprehensibly bad. Then, almost miraculously, the film gives the audience two more hours of film and actually finds a way to make it entertaining. I guess if one were to subscribe to the law of averages, then the film’s 80% effectiveness means it’s a pretty successful B- movie overall. It might sound like damning it with faint praise, but I’ve sat through much worse and was pleased to say that I feel like I came out ahead in the end.
Somewhere in the distant future and thanks to an unforeseen apocalypse of some sort, the city of Chicago has walled itself off from the rest of the potentially diseased world and created its own government and system of living. Society is divided into five factions: the thinkers of Erudite, the honest people of Candor, the kind hearted farmers of Amity, the fearless police and tactical force of Dauntless, and the everyday people who shun vanity and run the government, Abnegation. When someone matures in this society, they take a standardized biological and psychological test to determine who they will be for the rest of their lives. Most of the time people go back to their faction, sometimes they choose otherwise. If they choose to move to a different sect, they can’t go back to the lives they were raised under.
Enter Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), daughter of Abnegation members (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn), who turns out to be “divergent,” meaning she can move between the virtues that the society has traditionally kept segregated. Knowing that she will be in great danger should anyone find out about her “affliction,” the test provider sneaks her out the back door and orders her to lie for her own safety. On the choosing day, Tris chooses to align herself with Dauntless, pushing herself because…
Actually, I really can’t tell you why she would want to join Dauntless aside from the fact that they are all super attractive, train jumping, parkour mastering badasses. But that’s not really the biggest problem in this set up from Veronica Roth’s novel, who wrote the source material while in college. On a surface level, it’s kind of an interesting take on college as a be all and end all proposition for young people who feel trapped into performing under only a single set of expectations, but the actual world building in this universe is terrible.
I don’t know how it is in the book, but here the universe and the system put in place makes no sense. What happened? Why the factions? How were the factions even decided in the first place? Why have the test when all it really does is create the illusion of choice? Why the hell are the members of Abnegation in charge of the government? Why are all the thinkers (led by a maniacal Kate Winslet) assholes? Why are the “divergents” such a threat? Shouldn’t “divergents” be running the government or be keeping the peace? Why the heck is anything the way it is in this world? How has this illusion of choice stood for so long?
Thankfully, all of these questions are raised early and almost immediately forgotten about once Tris starts her lengthy training at Dauntless, which is very Ender’s Game-y and militaristic in its approach, but at least at this point director Neil Burger’s film starts to come to life. The training sequences are pretty standard stuff, but they look appropriately badass, especially why Woodley gets to square off against actors like Jai Courtney, playing heavily tattooed new-school instructor and tough love believer Eric, and her former Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller, playing a former Candor going after a spot in Dauntless and acting like just as much of an ass as he did before).
As with most training periods, Dauntless candidates have to perform up to snuff or else they will be kicked out into the streets to become both homeless and factionless since they can’t ever return to their families. Tris, who has never fought or worked out a day in her life, is brought under the wing of Four (Theo James), a much kinder instructor who sees potential in Tris and who is also secretly “divergent”. He gets her through, but then it becomes apparent that Winslet’s villainous leader has secretly imprinted Dauntless members with microtechnology that will turn them into mindless drones to wipe Abnegation off the map in an effort to usurp the government.
Some friends will become enemies, some enemies will remain enemies, you know, the usual. At least for the final two hours Burger keeps things moving at a snappy enough pace to at least make the action seem interesting, and somehow inexplicably he creates stakes to make the audience care about the overthrowing of a government that doesn’t have sensible dynamics in the first place. He’s actively trying to make a great film, and the cast is down to match up with him.
Woodley and James make for a great on-screen team. The obvious romantic connection between the characters aside, they feel like people on the same page. They actually feel compatible instead of one person just having a crush on the other person before trying to take on the world. Woodley gets to play a junior version of Sigourney Weaver in a lot of ways, credibly balancing the physical action demands with the sometimes silly dramatic heavy lifting. James gets to play with a lot more subtext to his character, and despite his arc seeming like the one with a lot more long term pay off than that of Tris, he plays his part well. Teller and Winslet get pretty great villainous supporting roles that are memorable enought to make you hate them. Really the only person who gets the short end of the stick here is Judd, whose character seems like she should be a bigger deal than she’s made out to be.
Whatever the case and despite the length, Divergent succeeds at being an alright teen oriented blockbuster that started off feeling like a waste of time before ultimately pulling out something entertaining. I’d watch another film set in this world, but I doubt I would care in the slightest about the dynamics of it. At least Burger’s film has the sense to stop caring about such things after 30 minutes and sticks to the story’s strong suits.