Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q, Ansel Elgort, Mekhi Phifer, and Kate Winslet
If you watch the trailers to Divergent and the first Hunger Games back to back, you will notice them as being eerily similar. The dynamic established by an instinctually developed young woman with the world in her hands is painfully developed while romance and adolescence bloom is on display in both trailers. However, the difference between the two films themselves is that Divergent, at 140 minutes of plotting and apathy, is a sore disappointment.
When Twilight took the world by storm six years ago, Summit-Lionsgate would have been dumb to not do what they did, which is snatch up the rights to all the young adult novels they could. But the danger in doing so is the market can become extremely over-saturated. The time for this saturation has officially been stamped at its starting point by Divergent. The film starts us off on the eve of the Choosing Ceremony, and the main crux of the story revolves around Beatrice Prior (Woodley) being labeled as a ‘divergent,’ someone who doesn’t fit into any of the preconceived notions of a powerful government and its surrounding society. Prior rechristens herself Tris, and decides to join the faction known as Dauntless, while her twin brother Caleb (Elgort) goes to Erudite. Erudite is incredibly threatened by Dauntless, and the film’s unraveling plot & action involves the dynamic created by the factions and the crumbling dystopian world around them.
Like Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games, the casting of Divergent’s main protagonist is vital to its longevity. If there is one thing the producers got right, it was the casting of this role. Even if there are times she almost looks uncomfortable being tough, Woodley (The Descendants) is very good at being vulnerable and emotional. She holds her own as Tris, and if the studio is successful at getting the franchise they are so achingly striving for (pre-production is already underway on the sequel), it is because the series rests on her very capable shoulders. Truth is she is just as good as Lawrence. It’s just too bad she wasn’t in a better scripted vehicle. It was nice seeing Goldwyn (as Tris’ father) back on the screen. But Winslet, looking bored as government leader Jeanine Matthews, turns in perhaps the worst performance of her career. Again, this may be due to the incredibly unfocused script.
Director Neil Burger (Limitless) is obviously trying to world build here. But the main problem with his direction is that besides being all over the place, there is absolutely no sense of place within the film. Also, the danger of a film like this is that its makers can get so focused on building the framework of a franchise that they don’t realize the structure of their first film crumbling around them. And that is exactly what Divergent is. Each faction is simplistically introduced with nary a substance, and the film’s script is ineffective in both its storytelling and complete lapses of judgment. Which is kind of sad coming from the pen of Evan Daugherty, who co-wrote the highly enjoyable Snow White and the Huntsman and the upcoming controversial Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This bad judgment extends to include the film’s pallet, which is full of plain sheen and nothing you haven’t seen before. Maybe they were going for the Star Wars ‘used’ look, but it hurt the overall feel of the film (which was filmed on location in Chicago.)
The thing about Divergent is that there are some great ideas and questions at hand here. What is it like when you are forced to not only think about adulthood, but how you are going to survive in a futuristic dystopian society, all of which come with the emotions involved in growing up anyway? It’s a question that peaks at your interest in it. There is also a pretty awesome final gun battle that helps the film literally end with a bang. But I feel there is absolutely no crossover appeal to Divergent. Its story spreads itself too thin and there are way too many narrative issues to take it seriously. Woodley is a very capable actress, but even she cannot save the studio-induced quicksand the writers and director have found themselves sinking in with Divergent. Now the question is, will they even get a chance to dig themselves out of it?