By: Michael “MovieBuff801″ Dennos
If franchises like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are examples of young adult franchises at their best, and ones like Twilight represent them at their worst, then it’s a film like Divergent that’s a shining — or in this case, dull — example of the genre when the success of certain predecessors tries to be replicated, but not with as much conviction. That isn’t to say that this latest blend of action, a dystopian future and hormonal teenage romance is awful, but for a movie built around the idea of society being broken up into separate factions based on personality, Divergent shows a surprising lack of personality itself. If these movie studios want to avoid groans of, “Not another teen franchise,” every time trailers for one pop up, then the effort put into them needs to be stepped up. A movie can’t be deemed “the next Hunger Games,” simply because of a similar premise; it also needs to exhibit signs of both confidence in its material and a respect for any non-book readers in the audience. And judging by this first film, the people in charge of adapting Veronica Roth’s series have some ground to make up.
See if you can spot the various similarities to other young adult series: Divergent is set in a distant future, after war has ravaged most of the world, prompting what’s left of society to be cut off from the rest of what’s left “out there.” In Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each based on personality traits: Abnegation (the Selfless), Amity (the Peaceful), Candor (the Truthful), Erudite (the Intelligent) and Dauntless (the Brave). Our young heroine is Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley), the daughter of two high-ranking Abnegation members about to participate in the time-honored rite of passage: choosing which faction to permanently be a part of. Tris has always harbored desires of wanting to get away from the Abnegation clan, but the initial test which is meant to say which faction any one person in the society should belong to comes back with the rare result of Divergent, which means that said person exhibits signs of possessing all five traits, rather than just one; it’s also extremely rare. Being a Divergent is dangerous business, because it means that person can’t be controlled, and Tris doesn’t exactly do herself any favors when she chooses to be part of Dauntless. There, she’s trained to be the ultimate warrior, because Dauntless is the “police force” of the society, and her main training officer is Four (Theo James) — yes, his name really is Four — who begins to “see something” in Tris the more he trains her. Could these two eventually become romantic foils? Need I remind you what genre this is? But Four isn’t the only one whose watchful eye Tris catches. She also attracts the attention of Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who might just be up to something behind the scenes.
By this point, there are so many of these young adult series out there, the fact that these newer ones borrow elements from previous ones isn’t all that surprising. The basic world of Divergent isn’t far off from that of The Hunger Games, and the ceremony in which the teens are separated into the different factions is not unlike the Sorting Ceremony that new students at Hogwarts endure in Harry Potter. But cobbling together a few already-used elements isn’t really Divergent’s main problem; it’s the fact that the film itself never really seems to care about its own world and the inherent mythology. And if the movie never demonstrates any conviction about anything that’s happening on-screen, then why should anybody who’s watching it? Divergent very much has the feeling of a paint-by-the-numbers production, where the screenplay is more of a checklist of required genre elements. Dystopian future? Check. Main character with something about them that makes them special? Check. That something special eventually becoming the thing meant to make them the one to take down the opposition? Check. An antagonistic bully character who constantly squares off against our hero? Check. An attractive love interest? Double-check, especially going by the heated whispers from the teen girls sitting in the row in front of me when I saw this. Little reason to actually get invested in any of this? Triple-check. You know, I’d actually like to see a movie like this one day that changes up this formula somehow.
But Divergent isn’t without its positives, and its main positive is Shailene Woodley. Like Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, Woodley has definite acting chops, and she brings them to this role. The character of Tris as-written actually isn’t a badass right away, and instead she has to transform into a more hardened soldier as the film goes along, and Woodley does a very solid job of capturing that. There’s a certain vulnerability in her performance that makes the character interesting, and whereas most other stories like this might feel the need to already have their main character be the fearless hero, I liked that Divergent takes the time to get Tris there over the course of the film. Building off the strength of her character, the relationship that develops between Tris and Four … actually isn’t that bad. Again, other movies seem to have the mentality of, “Get them together ASAP!” but this movie takes its time there, too. Plus, Tris actually expresses the desire to take things slow once they do hook up (spoiler alert? Come on.) and I think that’s a decent thing to show, compared to Twilight’s message of, “Get in bed ASAP!” I also appreciated the world-building in Divergent, as the central idea of personality-based society factions really is interesting.
The execution though, as I’ve already said, leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is there a lack of a desire to make us care in the screenwriting by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, there’s also a tendency to fall back on action movie tropes. There’s of course all of the training-for-combat clichés, but in the Third Act especially, Divergent becomes just another action movie where characters run around and shoot at each other. It’s almost like this movie gets less and less interesting with each of its three acts. Which is a shame, because I loved director Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, but he can only do so much here, given the material; at least he visualizes everything fairly well.
Probably the most disappointing thing about Divergent, though, is its truly wasted potential. The elements are certainly here for a decent movie, but they never really come together that way. What we get instead is a movie that’s ultimately a bit too undefined, and despite some solid attributes on display, Divergent could take a lesson from its characters and find a suitable personality.