Film Review: ‘Divergent’
Even though it stretches to nearly two-and-a-half hours and concludes with an extended gun battle, by the time “Divergent” ends, it still seems to be in the process of clearing its throat. Blame it on burdensome commercial expectations, perhaps: Adapted from the first novel in Veronica Roth’s blockbuster YA series, this film has clearly been designated an heir apparent to Summit-Lionsgate’s massively lucrative teen-targeted “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” properties. Yet director Neil Burger seems so concerned with laying franchise groundwork that he neglects to create an engaging standalone movie, and “Divergent’s” uncertain sense of setting, bloated plot, drab visual style and solid yet underwhelming lead turns from Shailene Woodley and Theo James don’t necessarily make the best case for series newcomers. Fans of the books will turn out for what should be a very profitable opening weekend, but with future installments already on the release calendar, the film’s B.O. tea leaves will surely be read with care.
While the obvious takeaway from the successes of “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” would seem to be that properties once considered the domain of teenage girls have every bit as much crossover potential as those marketed to their brothers, a number of studios have instead simply opted to stripmine serialized young-adult fiction for stories with superficially similar elements. Set in a dystopian society with a “chosen one” heroine and prominent time given over to a moony, chaste romance, “Divergent” certainly fits that bill.
The film takes place in a decaying futuristic version of Chicago, where society has reorganized itself into five distinct factions based on personality types, and named after words that “Divergent’s” target audience will soon need to learn for their SATs: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. (Why some factions are named with adjectives and others with nouns is a mystery that future installments will hopefully unravel.)
Speaking of the SAT, a standardized test is of paramount importance to teenage life in the film’s universe as well. At the age of 16, all youths must pick the faction where they will spend the rest of their lives, after a hallucinatory exam recommends where they are best suited. Of course, the results are secret, the test-takers are free to choose whichever faction they like, and the majority simply elect to stay right where they were born, which does call into question the test’s importance.
Protagonist Beatrice Prior (Woodley) is the daughter of an Abnegation official (Tony Goldwyn) who lives with her nurturing mother (Ashley Judd) and twin brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort). She has never felt at ease with her faction’s modest, self-denying lifestyle, and when she takes the test, her results prove inconclusive, suggesting she’s equally adept at three different skillsets. Her tester (Maggie Q) hurries her out of the building, explaining that she is a rare species of “Divergent,” and must keep this information secret lest terrible consequences befall her. This is the first of many doom-laden warnings she’ll be given by characters who don’t have the time to explain them in any detail.
When Choosing Day arrives, the Prior twins shock the whole city by both opting for new factions. Caleb selects the snobbish Erudite faction, lead by the oleaginous, power-hungry Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet, doing what sounds conspicuously close to a Hillary Clinton impression). Beatrice defects to the warrior class Dauntless, a whooping, hollering, aerially detraining bunch with a fashion aesthetic that falls midway between “UFC fighter” and “Hot Topic clerk.”