Published on May 24th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Summary: A bleak movie that borders on irritating, especially the staggering lack of detail provided by its screenplay. The actors do a decent job and the story's lesson is an important one for teens but it's a hard film to enjoy.
PG-13 | 139 min.
Director: Neil Burger
Screenplay: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor (Based on Veronica Roth’s novel)
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney
Budget: $85 million | U.S. Box Office: $150,947,895 (#19 of 2014)
Perhaps Veronica Roth should take a page from Gillian Flynn.
Flynn, the best-selling novelist who became a household name when her 2012 book Gone Girl took off, took it upon herself to pen the screenplay for the 2014 movie adaptation. It turned out to be a great flick and as someone who read that book, I felt she made some proper changes but kept the most important elements of her story. Roth, the 26-year-old scribe behind the popular Divergent young adult book series, handed off the screenwriting reins for her adaptation — and this is what happened.
Full disclosure: I’ve never read any of Roth’s Divergent books and I realize writing novels isn’t the same as writing scripts but I honestly don’t think she could have done any worse by translating her own story to the screen.
Divergent — the book and this movie — is set in that most popular of all young adult fictional worlds: a dystopian near future. In this film’s culture, citizens are divided into one of five factions after taking an aptitude test in their teens that’s designed to tell them where they fit in, based on their personalities. Of course, in this world, no one seems to have a shred of personality — but we’ll get to that later.
Smart people join the Erudite clan (a group described in the film’s opening narration by the profound statement, “They know everything”); people who are fun-loving and apparently into farming join the Amity group; folks who value justice and honesty above all join Candor; hardasses who want to police the streets join Dauntless; and selfless, charitable people join the Abnegation group. But what happens if your test is inconclusive and you don’t fit into any of the designated factions but rather share traits with several of them? You, my friend, are divergent.
That’s the situation the movie’s hero Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) — or Tris, as we find she likes to be called — finds herself in at the start of Divergent. We soon find out it’s a rare and dangerous label to carry, and one that will likely get you killed unless concealed. But why is it so dangerous? “They can’t control you,” as one minimally helpful side character tells Tris.
If this all sounds like one big, ham-fisted parable about being oneself, that’s because it is. Divergent is all about rugged individualism, which is an important ideal especially for teenagers to learn, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough storyline meat to sustain a 2.5-hour movie, let alone
three four films.
As I watched Divergent, I grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of background detail provided by the screenplay. The film’s antagonists operate on the motivation of preserving what they call a “peaceful,” divided society — yet the policing Dauntless faction seem to be an unmerciful group of psychopaths that are trained to crack skulls, something I wouldn’t think would be necessary in a society supposedly free of disagreement and violence. Also, the brainy Erudites have allegedly spent a century studying world history and various texts, yet they are firm advocates of class segregation and genocide, two practices that have not resulted in thriving cultures. Also, how was Theo James’ character able to pick his nickname based on the number of “worst fears” he held, if their names must be picked immediately upon arriving at Dauntless HQ — weeks before the trainees undergo psychological testing?
Some movies allow for illogical plots because the characters, setting and storyline are fun and interesting; if a filmmaker can keep the audience entertained, there’s little else to worry about. Divergent fails because it’s not an entertaining film. The characters are all bores, the romance is as passionate as a biology textbook and the few action sequences are not directed with an ounce of flair.
Shailene Woodley has proven to be an actress capable of great work but she doesn’t seem comfortable as an action star. I just didn’t buy her in any of the film’s hand-to-hand fighting scenes and when wielding a gun, she’s equally as authoritative. Jennifer Lawrence broke out as a strong dramatic actress in 2010’s Winter’s Bone before showing her ass-kicking skills in 2012’s The Hunger Games; Woodley followed a similar path, earning deserved praise for her dramatic turn in 2011’s The Descendants before landing the leading role in the Divergent series.
I bought Lawrence as an action hero but Woodley didn’t sell me in her first try. Plus, Katniss Everdeen is a much more interesting lead character than Tris, although both are fine role models for young women. Audiences seemed to be in agreement, as Divergent grossed about $150 million domestically while The Hunger Games pulled in a staggering $408 million in the States.
The supporting cast of Divergent boasts a gaggle of young actors, including Theo James as Tris’ mentor/love interest, Ansel Elgort as her brother and Miles Teller in arguably his least charming performance yet. If only this film had been able to capture a shred of the electricity on display between Teller and Woodley in 2013’s The Spectacular Now. Also included are established stars Ashley Judd as Tris’ mysterious mother and Kate Winslet as an intelligent leader who is equal parts ambitious and unscrupulous. In the world of Divergent, apparently hobbies and fun don’t exist, so none of the characters have interests outside of their jobs, meaning nobody has any personality. The entire point of the film is that the characters are a conforming herd, except for Tris and other divergents, but Tris is just as uninteresting as any of the drones she’s rebelling against.
I found the villains in this movie to be annoying and irredeemable, without a single likable quality. Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher, Terminator Genisys) has the honor of playing the film’s most tiresome character, an irritating instructor who bullies Tris and the other trainees with relentless cruelty. He’s the kind of character whose parents didn’t hug enough so now he’s got some facial piercings, a neck tattoo and a shitty attitude. Pure and simple, it’s world is a society of weenies when a guy like this is able to operate in a position of power.
This is an action flick, with elements of a teen coming-of-age drama, but the action itself is hardly pulse-pounding. There is some parkour done by the Dauntless members that is fun to watch and a memorable sequence where Tris flies through a desolate city on a high-speed zip line but the scenes that involve gunplay and fisticuffs are rudimentary. It’s one of those annoying PG-13 action flicks where people get the hell beat out of them during a fight — taking shot after shot to the face — but never show any visible signs of injury. I wasn’t expecting a gore-fest but it’s hard to feel the impact of what could have been some brutal fight scenes when barely a drop of blood is visible. Director Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist) has exhibited more skill with mystery or drama pictures than high-octane intensity so far in his career.
What I found most intriguing about Divergent were the segments where the audience is invited into the psyche of its characters, as they explore and confront their deepest fears. These scenes gave the filmmakers unlimited potential to create eerie atmospheres but instead, it’s all done very safely. When we venture into Tris’ head, we find she’s scared of crows (yes, Hitchcock-style pecking birds), drowning, being burned alive and being sexually assaulted. I wish these sequences would have been stretched longer instead of ending so quickly; same with the sequence where Tris takes her aptitude test, it was built up through dialogue and then over in less than two minutes, before I even knew the test had begun. I felt like Burger and his crew missed a lot of opportunities to take advantage of some psychological terror which could have truly separated Divergent from lighter teen fare.
Ultimately, Divergent feels like a movie that was made for people who had read the book and were already familiar with the anal-retentive nature of its fictional government. If you’re looking for the next great tale about a dystopian future, look elsewhere.