I think the ideal time to see Divergent is when you’re a teenager. This dystopian science-fiction saga based on Veronica Roth’s best-selling novel is all about teens sorting themselves out. Literally, the future society they live in is strictly divided into five “factions” devoted to different disciplines in life, and when kids turn 16, they have to choose which one they’ll live in for the rest of their lives. This setup chimes with how high-schoolers try to figure themselves out and frequently pick cliques or circles of friends to help them decide who they are. It’s a neat little metaphor. I just wish that both Roth and the film had done more with it.
Our heroine is Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley), who hails from the Abnegation faction, which prizes selflessness and thus is entrusted with the government of this nameless society in the walled-off city that once was Chicago. When it comes time, Tris chooses the Dauntless faction, which is the soldier class charged with defending the city. Yet she’s hiding a secret: When she was given a test to see which faction she’d be best suited to, she registered in multiple categories. She is Divergent, and the government is hunting down and killing people like her for reasons she has yet to learn.
Director Neil Burger did Limitless two years ago, which demonstrated a certain talent for action and black comedy. His sense of humor is little in evidence in this adaptation, which like too many others adheres too closely to its source. Roth’s novel doesn’t use its setup for much more than a fairly standard coming-of-age saga, whereas Suzanne Collins used the premise of The Hunger Games to comment on income inequality and celebrity culture. The filmmakers here had the chance to expand the material, but neither Burger nor his screenwriters seems in the mood.
The director stumbles right out of the gate when it comes to introducing this society’s complicated setup. Burger is only rarely as clumsy after that, but he never settles into a rhythm. Tris undergoes induced hallucinations as part of her training (they act like combat simulations and stress tests), and those potentially powerful sequences look exactly like the rest of the film, lacking any sort of phantasmagoric power. Most of the story is taken up with Tris and her fellow initiates progressing through training and tests to become full-fledged members of Dauntless, and we get little sense of Tris being on a clock or changing with her new environment. I do appreciate the fact that Tris never becomes buff despite her determination, and her instructors note how her lack of upper body strength will disadvantage her in a fight. Still, there’s very little flow to the story, and at 138 minutes, you really feel it.
The first Hunger Games movie had Jennifer Lawrence to carry it over its rough spots. Woodley isn’t Lawrence, but there’s hardly any shame in that. She does have a demure blank-eyed stare and a girlish voice that fits well with the character of someone who’s unformed and will grow into something. She is skilled, and her small reactions help keep Tris from becoming a mere construct. However, she shows little chemistry with Theo James, the criminally good-looking British import who plays her main instructor and who falls for her. (The actor does manage to project a dry sense of humor underneath his character’s forbidding exterior). She has more with Miles Teller, who played her love interest in The Spectacular Now and here, as a bullying, sociopathic fellow initiate, punches her in the face.
The other actors are generally flat, and it seems to be by design, especially in the case of Kate Winslet as the head of the intellectual faction who turns out to be the main villain. This may be in keeping with the spare prose of Roth’s novel, but the affectless tone isn’t used well during the moments that are supposed to be emotional. When Tris calls one fellow trainee (Christian Madsen) a coward, and he promptly goes off and kills himself, the scene doesn’t have time to hit before Burger whisks us off into the next bit. Nor is Divergent good enough as an action picture to make up for it. This movie feels like it was directed by someone from Abnegation, afraid to kick up too much of a fuss.
Starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James. Directed by Neil Burger. Written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, based on Veronica Roth’s novel. Rated PG-13.