Divergent: Film Review

A rocky start to the Next Big Thing in YA movie franchises.

Shailene Woodley and Theo James topline the first of three features based on novelist Veronica Roth’s postapocalyptic trilogy.

Dystopia is no picnic for most everyone involved, but in the future world of Divergent, it’s especially hard on teens. At the heart of Veronica Roth’s YA bestseller is a provocative existential dilemma involving adolescence and identity: At age 16, everyone must choose which of society’s stringently defined factions they’ll join. That could mean staying on home turf or leaving family far behind, and it’s an irreversible decision. In an era when you’re never too young to not just choose a career but to launch one, it’s an idea with particular resonance.

It’s also an idea that loses much of its potency in the movie adaptation, as director Neil Burger struggles to fuse philosophy, awkward romance and brutal action. Even with star Shailene Woodley delivering the requisite toughness and magnetism, the clunky result is almost unrelentingly grim. Dystopia can be presented in dynamic ways, but this iteration of it is, above all, no picnic for the audience.

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Lukewarm reviews might squelch curiosity among those unfamiliar with the trilogy of books, but the must-see factor among fans will ensure a robust opening for Summit, which has two sequels in the works and the next installment, Insurgent, fast-tracked for early-2015 release.

Like most social science fiction, the story, set in a war-ravaged Chicago in an unspecified future, is propelled by the friction between freethinkers and an authoritarian regime. Protagonist Beatrice Prior (Woodley) faces particular jeopardy because she’s a rare and dangerous bird: a so-called Divergent, who doesn’t fit neatly into one of the prescribed categories that control every aspect of life.

Like the source material, the film begins on the eve of the Choosing Ceremony, as 16-year-old Beatrice submits to the aptitude test — a personality quiz via drug-induced hallucination — that will tell her which faction suits her best. The inconclusive results alarm her tester (a well-cast Maggie Q), who warns her never to tell a soul that she’s Divergent. Being uncategorizable makes Beatrice a threat to the social order.

Perhaps reaching too quickly for the epic, the screen adaptation, credited to Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, skimps on setting up the Prior family dynamics, lessening the emotional impact of the ceremony in which both Beatrice and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), opt to transfer out of Abnegation, the faction of the selfless. Beatrice has never felt as naturally charitable as her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), and her face lights up whenever she sees the Dauntless, the brave ones who snarl and rollick like a bunch of punk rockers; they’re as boisterous and defiant as the members of Abnegation are low-key and self-effacing.

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Beatrice’s first moments with her new tribe bear out the sense of thrills and danger she observed from a distance. Jumping from a moving train — the Dauntless way of arriving, and one of the film’s best sequences — she gets to experience the kinetic physicality long denied her. (The rusted-out but still functioning elevated trains are a standout component of Andy Nicholson’s production design.)

But soon after Beatrice joins the Dauntless, and redubs herself Tris, she finds that train jumping, building scaling and other wild behavior isn’t the choice of free spirits but the requirement of soldiers in training. The subterranean Pit that serves as Dauntless HQ is a bleak place, devoid of humor or brightness — as is the movie.

Tris’ martial indoctrination takes up much of the first hour, putting her in a number of punishing mano-a-mano bouts with other initiates. Those who don’t prove their mettle will end up among the “factionless,” outcasts subsisting on the streets of a city where you can never go home again.

Instructor Four (a commanding Theo James, of Underworld: Awakening) takes an interest in Tris and her survival, mitigating the merciless demands of leader Eric (Jai Courtney). Predictably, things steam up: Four shows Tris his tattoo and, in an act of real intimacy, invites her into his chemically produced nightmare, the better to prepare her for the final hurdle in her training: a fear test that’s an obvious variation on Room 101 in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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In small roles, some of which will probably take on greater weight in the next film, Mekhi Phifer and Ray Stevenson play faction leaders, and Zoe Kravitz and Miles Teller are two initiates from Candor (faction of the truth tellers).

Kate Winslet shows up in icy-blonde mode as Jeanine, a ferocious proponent of the brave new world’s social engineering and leader of the Erudite, the brainy faction that’s waging a campaign to discredit the ruling Abnegation. (The peaceful Amity faction barely registers in the film.) A conversation between Jeanine and Tris offers a few moments of refreshingly sublimated hostility. Otherwise, such high-wire tension is MIA as nearly every exchange hits the nail squarely on the head (echoing the plain prose of the book).

Carlo Poggioli brings a utilitarian expressiveness to the color-coded faction outfits, while Nicholson’s sets excel at industrial grunge; Chicago’s Navy Pier and its Ferris wheel make for a vivid abandoned amusement park. In general, though, the postwar cityscape feels generic, captured in straightforward widescreen images by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler, who created a far more affecting sense of dystopian malaise in the underappreciated Code 46.

The score by Junkie XL (Hans Zimmer is credited as executive score producer) is rousing when appropriate and mostly unobtrusive, unlike the tone-deaf use of indie-pop and techno tracks at key points in the action (Randall Poster is the music supervisor).

Woodley, a sensitive performer, is hamstrung by the screenplay but lends her role relatability and a convincing athleticism. Burger and Kuchler’s unfortunate preference for mascara-ad close-ups, however, detracts from the character’s grit.

In the hands of Burger, whose credits include The Illusionist and Limitless, the story’s elements of spectacle, decay, symbolism and struggle only rarely feel fully alive. Lackluster direction in the early installments of other YA franchises hasn’t slowed their momentum, though. Divergent will be no exception.

Opens: Friday, March 21 (Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment)
Production: Red Wagon Entertainment
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet
Director: Neil Burger
Screenwriters: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor
Based on the novel by Veronica Roth
Producers: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian
Executive producers: John J. Kelly, Rachel Shane
Director of photography: Alwin Kuchler
Production designer: Andy Nicholson
Music: Junkie XL
Executive score producer: Hans Zimmer
Co-producer: Veronica Roth
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editors: Richard Francis-Bruce, Nancy Richardson
PG-13; 139 minutes