The first entry in a four-part sci-fi series, Divergent (2014) sees Shailene Woodley star as Beatrice (or ‘Tris’ as she renames herself during the story), one of the few inhabitants left in a desolate and splintered Chicago, a dystopian vision of the future in which society has fractured into five factions: Abnegation, where Tris and her family live, Amity, Dauntless, Candor and Erudite. Tris, and many other teenagers like her, get to decide where their future lies in the form of both their own vote and a testing procedure, introduced by the leader of the factions, Jeanine (a suitably slimy Kate Winslet). Yet, despite sage advice, Tris chooses to leave Abnegation and join law enforcers Dauntless.
Tris, however, is hiding a dark secret: she is Divergent, a human who can easily cross through the other splintered factions, and one that, according to the powers that be, could spell an uprising across the globe. So far, so Hunger Games. And while the similarities are obvious and many, what’s clear is that while Divergent is a decent enough film with some neat flashes of both design and action, it doesn’t hold a candle to the aforementioned, whose sharp story and unpredictable set-ups are much more interesting. With The Hunger Games, you care for the characters and their plights, for the story and what it was trying to say about society, about economics and the struggles in a dystopia, whereas everything in Divergent seems like a rip-off, with poorly constructed characters and a dull, predictable plot.
Director Neil Burger here seems more director-for-hire, showing only glimpses of his obvious talents. The CGI work ranges from the good (the cityscapes are gorgeous) to the terrible (Tris abseiling). Kudos to cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler and designer Andy Nicholson, then, for some exceptional work, with the ‘floor level’ of the Chicago streets looking barren and startling, as well as some first-rate work in the costume department. In the acting stakes, Woodley does a decent enough job in the Tris role, with a good combination of strength and vulnerability throughout, but her talents are on the whole wasted. Anyone who has seen The Descendants (2011) or The Spectacular Now (2013) will know just how good she can be, and while this will be her franchise, it certainly wont go down as her best. The fine Miles Teller is also squandered, while Jai Courtney and Theo James both look the part but lack any charisma or charm. Thankfully, the pros (namely Winslet and Ashley Judd) inject some much-needed class to proceedings.
What is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Divergent, however, lies in its final third. As the societal walls are close to crashing down, with the citizens of Abnegation on the verge of being completely wiped out, the story decides to instead focus on a sloppy and rather forced romance between Tris and Four (James). Yes, there are a few sparks along the way, and it was always likely they would end up together, but with three more films left to go surely those hints would have served this first outing better than the schmaltzy thud that greets enters the fraternity, taking you completely out of the story as it reaches its climax. That said, this is a YA story, and no YA story would be complete without some wagging of tongues or slow, aching glances. Divergent is a film full of ideas, but for the most part sadly wastes them. What could have been a rewarding film about society and its possible future instead reduces itself to an underwhelming slush.
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