Divergent is, by all accounts, the next big thing after Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games. It’s based on the bestselling sci-fi novel series by American author Veronica Roth and stars one of the hottest up-and-coming stars in Hollywood, Shailene Woodley. The film was a commercial success and a sequel, Insurgent, is slated for a March 2015 release.
So is Divergent the real deal, or is it yet another pretender in the vein of The Golden Compass, Percy Jackson, I Am Number Four and Vampire Academy?
To be honest, I don’t think I can make my mind up — yet. It has a fairly typical post-apocalyptic premise, in which the world — as far as we know — is essentially decimated but there are elements of extremely advanced technology, kind of like The Hunger Games.
What sets the premise apart is the introduction of the idea that all human beings can be categorized into one of five factions: Abnegation the selfless, Amity the peaceful, Candor the honest, Dauntless the brave, and Erudite the intelligent. When someone turns 16 they are given a personality test which tells them the faction they belong to, though they are still given the freedom to choose whatever they want. Once you choose a faction, however, you are there for life.
Say what? I hear you say. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me either. First of all, how can humans only have five personality traits? Second of all, how can a person be deemed to have only one of the traits? Thirdly, what is the point of the test if you get to choose whatever you want anyway? And lastly, how does any of this help create a more peaceful, more organized and more advanced society?
Anyway, our teenage protagonist, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort, who coincidentally plays Shailene’s lover in The Fault in Our Stars — awkward!) reach that age whenthey have to undergo the test and pick their faction. But of course there’s a twist — we find out that Beatrice is “special”! She joins a faction regardless, and the first half of the film revolves predominantly around her group training to become a badass, and the budding romance she develops with a team leader (Theo James). Later on, stuff inevitably happens, leading to a climactic showdown in which — you guessed it — only Beatrice can save the world.
When I put it that way, Divergent sounds like a pretty stereotypical teen/sci-fi flick, not all that different from The Hunger Games or Ender’s Game, both of which have similar plot points and progression.
Having said that, I still found Divergent to be a surprisingly entertaining and engaging experience (especially during the tense and exciting training sequences). That can happen when you have an $85 million budget and a first-class production team and cast.
Neil Berger is a solid commercial directors proven track record in making test intelligent thrillers such as The Illusionist and Limitless. And regardless of the future of this franchise, Shailene Woodley is poised for big things. Despite her age (22), she has a remarkable screen presence, which she uses to carry the film from start to finish, and she also has this face that’s not immediately attractive or appealing, but somehow grows on you as her personality starts to shine through. Most young actresses would be thrilled to be called the poor (wo)man’s Jennifer Lawrence, but in Woodley’s case it would be an insult. She’s for real. (And while we’re at it, Beatrice Prior is a good enough character to not be called a poor (wo)man’s Katniss Everdeen either.)
English actor Theo James won’t be getting hype like the Twilight boys because his character is fairly lame and secondary, but he does what he can with limited material to work with, and Zoe Kravitz, Lenny’s girl, adds some sass as Beatrice’s closest friend. Ansel Elgort is decent, but he doesn’t have much screen time. The rest of the supporting cast is A-list, with Kate Winslet playing a key government official, Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn as the parents, and Jai Courtney as a faction member, with minor characters portrayed by the likes of Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson and Mekhi Phifer.
The problem with the film lies ultimately in whether you can stomach the illogical premise. Most sci-fi films have plot holes and things that don’t necessarily make sense, but in many cases audiences can look past the flaws as long as the film works within the confines of its own rules. The Hunger Games, for example, had several issues with logic, though nothing stood out to the point where the whole film was at risk of collapsing. With Divergent the situation is a lot more iffy. We get what the premise is trying to say about free will and how people tend to be judged and grouped by appearances or a single characteristic, but when it fails what I like to call the “smell test” you have to ask yourself whether you can accept anything else in the story.
I haven’t read the book, but perhaps the author did a better job of fudging the premise than the movie did. In any case, given that there’s more to come in the story that might provide some much-needed explanations and context, I’m going to withhold my judgment for the time being. In reviewing Divergent as a standalone movie, however, I admit the premise did bother me, perhaps not to the extent that it ruined the film, but it certainly tempered what would have otherwise been a solid first entry to a series capable of competing with the Hunger Games franchise.
3 stars out of 5