DIVERGENT Review

If Divergent is anything it is competent. Everything about it screams ambition, what it wants to be and the actual product itself shows it has the ability and the right amount of reverence for the source material to be successful in conveying the spirit of Veronica Roth's novel to the screen. The drawback is that while it is indeed capable and is able to make a suitable enough film for fans of the novel to more or less enjoy and pick apart, nothing about the execution of bringing this story to life screams exceptional or even, for lack of a better term in this case, divergent. I finished the first book in Roth's trilogy a few months back and have since moved on to the next one, but while I was suspicious of this new dystopian franchise with a young female heroine for the lead I was eventually able to look past the similarities between it and The Hunger Games and at least understand the merit people were finding in these books. It might be too much (or too early for me as I'm in the middle of Insurgent) to say that Roth's series is the better written of the two from a creative standpoint, but it is already clear that Suzanne Collins series lends itself well to the cinematic world even if people were weary of it at first given the titular event included the slaughtering of children. I, personally, thought Divergent would be the easier story to tell onscreen, but it becomes obvious within the first hour or so of the film that this may not be so as things and events begin to collapse in on themselves and it is only with the promise of another chapter and the idea that these plot strands with less attention paid to them this time around may rise to become more relevant in the future. It is an odd feeling because as the film unfolded and I was referencing the book in my head wondering when or if they would include certain scenes it became apparent the writers and the filmmakers weren't quite sure how to structure things. The film plays out well enough and we understand the point of why everything is happening, but we don't necessarily feel the tension or the growing fear that should be mounting in our protagonist until it is too late and we feel the film has gone on for too long without ever feeling whole.

Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) helps Four (Theo James) face his fear of heights.
While I can't stress enough that the film adaptation of Divergent does a fine job of realizing the world and rules of Roth's novel, the real shame of it all is that it never conveys the motivations of the characters and why it is so important for people like Jeanine (Kate Winslet) to keep things in order the way they have been for some time now. You see, the story goes something like this: there was a major war a hundred or so years ago that left the majority of mankind dead or wandering outside of what has now been constructed as a large wall surrounding modern day Chicago. A new government has formed and has split the citizens into five factions. We have the Erudite who treasure intelligence, Dauntless who are the brave and therefore the soldiers, Amity are the peaceful (basically hippies), Candor who are honest and famous for not being able to tell a lie and finally there is Abnegation, the selfless. When you come of age you are put through a series of aptitude tests which tell you what faction you would best belong to. Regardless of the test results though, each person is given the right to choose what faction they want to join and live out their life a part of, but once you choose a faction there is no going back. Those whose tests are inconclusive, who don't fit squarely into any of the above categories, are known as divergents and if you are a divergent you are a threat to the system of order that has been put into place. Thus, we meet Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) a born and raised Abnegation who doesn't quite understand the ways of her people and the rules with which they restrict themselves. She is curious, she asks questions of her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) when she should keep quiet and she walks past those who could use a hand rather than stopping and giving of herself. She thinks herself a bad person for this inability to be who she's been told she needs to be and so it is clear she is unhappy with her faction, but that it still holds an important place as home. When her aptitude tests come back as inconclusive her world is sent into a tailspin and at the choosing ceremony she breaks away from Abnegation to join the Dauntless, a decision that introduces her to Four (Theo James) who may or may not be a kindred spirit, but also boils over a brewing conflict between the Erudite and Abnegation.

It has always been a kind of accepted fate that all systems eventually break down. Whether it be the Mayan, Roman or countless other, more advanced, empires they all fall (as ours unfortunately will some day too) and those always seem to make for the most interesting of times, where revolutions begin and heroes are born. That is essentially where we find ourselves in Divergent. All seems well, but the unavoidable fact that society, no matter its rules, will always stratify itself into the elite and the masses that, when paired with the inevitable strain placed on the ecological conditions of a culture, will lead to the collapse of that civilization. Jeanine represents that elite mentality and the fact she is Erudite only allows her to mask her controlling tendencies with the fact her actions are the most intelligent ones to take. Beatrice or Tris as she comes to be known after joining Dauntless is thrust into the middle of the conflict due to her status as a divergent, though this isn't immediately apparent to anyone, and her relation to her father who serves as a council member in the government as Abnegation run the civilization due to their selfless ways as well as to Four, who isn't the easiest to warm up to, but has the strongest arc of any character besides our lead. In the novel, it seemed clear that Roth was looking to make a statement about the individual; about how we can all be different while still sharing in the larger community, that society and class don't determine the true identity of the individual. It could be a metaphor for any number of scenarios and religion is likely as good as any. It is a nice enough sentiment and one that young girls in our own society can never get enough of (and I truly mean that in a genuine way), but throughout both the book and the movie you can see the bigger implications of history repeating itself with flashes of concentration camps and the psychological state soldiers are pushed to and sometimes broken by that are apparent in the Dauntless training sessions and incarnated by ruthless leader Eric (Jai Courtney). All of this is good and interesting, but it still has to be conveyed in a way where we identify with the characters and where we feel these themes brought to life and that is where the film has its missteps. Is it entertaining? Sure. Does it hit all the major plot points of the book while checking off the necessary elements of young adult adaptations? Absolutely. Still, there is clearly more to the mythology and the desires of these characters than that and while we get a few inspired moments here and there, the majority of the film is simply adequate.

Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is as devious and deceptive as they come in Divergent.
The aforementioned problem with the movie is that while it overstays its welcome, it doesn't flesh out these supporting elements enough for the pinnacle of the action to really feel earned by the time the credits begin to roll. Again, I understand this is only the first of three films that will make a complete story, but each individual film still needs to feel complete and the problem with Divergent is that it spends so much time setting up and inside this world of initiation that by the time the bigger conflict is introduced and the larger action set pieces take place it feels tacked on. Director Neil Burger (Limitless) and his writing team somehow couldn't see that they needed to re-arrange a few elements from the novel to make the payoff more satisfying and so instead of that full riveting experience we expect from a nearly two and a half hour film all we get is a feeling of abrupt abbreviation.

What allows this disjointed pacing and possibly confusing plot justifications to the uniniated to be eased though is likely the presence of such a strong cast. There was nowhere for the production to go once it cast Woodley in the lead role. Though she is likely prettier than the Tris Roth imagined when writing her, Woodley has the inherent ability to play quiet and reserved with that sense of something brewing just below the surface. It clearly serves her well here and she makes a natural transition from the meek, quiet world of Abnegation to the fast and outgoing community that is Dauntless. There are a few scenes in particular where not only does the specific shot selection enhance the larger meaning of the characters feeling, but in Woodley's face alone we see the emotional sum of what has become of her and what a question mark her future is. A certain scene in an alley and the other where an earlier plot strand actually comes into play effectively in a true moment of tension are played out perfectly and left me with a sense of what the entire film could have been were it more meticulously poured over and crafted by someone with a true affection for the material rather than a hired hand. James, the real untested newcomer here, does fine work as well and was the one I was most unsure of. In the book I always felt the romance between Tris and Four was somewhat forced and when you know what plot points are coming it always seems more than obvious in the film version, but here James and Woodley shared a nice chemistry that amounts to a relationship more about understanding than passion and it really speaks to where this series mind is at. It also doesn't hurt that the likes of Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson and Mekhi Phifer (kinda random though) have underdeveloped roles that are sure to flourish in the next film while I have yet to understand the appeal of Zoe Kravitz, but again look forward to see what comes of her new relationship with Tris once certain things come to light. Though it wasn't all I imagined it could have been, Divergent is serviceable and I have hopes that the rest of the series can only learn and improve, but with Robert Schwentke (R.I.P.D.) taking over directing duties I'm not overly-optimistic.