By: Bryan Montgomery
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Twilight in 2005 and The Hunger Games in 2010 marked the beginning of a new trend in Hollywood; the over-saturation of movies based on young adult novels that had garnered a cult following. We have seen some of the better iterations of these novels, as the Percy Jackson series has debuted a pair of films to moderate success, but for every film such as Jackson we get an installment of The Mortal Instruments, a complete flop that misfires an entire franchise. The next big player entering the game is Divergent, an adaptation of the first book in a trilogy by Veronica Roth, which manages to overcome obvious and almost destabilizing flaws to become a good start to a franchise, anchored mostly by its cast.
In a dystopian Chicago, young adults are thrust into a caste system that forces them to select from five factions, each representing a different personality trait. Beatrice Pryor (Shaliene Woodley), a member of the peaceful Abnegation faction discovers during her test that she fits into multiple categories, a rupture in the system known as “Divergent”. Electing to join the ruthless and leader-based faction of Dauntless, Beatrice, who now designates herself by the name Tris must battle through the harsh training and competition needed to join Dauntless, while at the same time avoiding the members of the government that are looking to seek out and eliminate those labeled as Divergent.
If the premise of the film has a “been there, done that” feeling, it shouldn’t and won’t be surprising. Divergent harkens back to so many plot and sub-plot points that have been seen during the last three years, especially in The Hunger Games. Thankfully, a convoluted and poorly paced script, which we delve into more detail on momentarily, is rectified by the show-stopping chemistry between the two leads, Tris and Four, played by Woodley and fellow newcomer Theo James.
Tris Is a curious case. As one who has read the book, I was interested to see how Woodley would personify the always busy brain of Tris, her frequent thoughts and emotions and the resilient persona that she presents on a regular basis. Already demonstrating her acting chops in her standout performance a few years back in The Descendents, Woodley more than succeeds in her time as Tris, easily defining the role and clinching her spot as a new leading woman in Hollywood. James also controls most of the film as Four, the mysterious leader of the Dauntless trainees, doing well as the steely-eyed and hard-nosed drill sergeant. As the relationship between the two intensifies, Woodley and James truly hit their mark, electing not to take the route of the Twilight star-crossed lovers but taking more of a hard-nosed approach, which works out well.
Also entering into the fray is Kate Winslet, who, as a seasoned actress, brings her top game to the film as well as Jeanine, the villainous leader of Erudite. The scenes between Jeanine and Tris are by far the best in Divergent, as Winslet manages to make exposition and a lame duck set of dialogue ring true in the climax of the film, sending stinging remarks to Tris that visibly shake Woodley, only for the actress to fire right back in a heavyweight bout between the two actresses. Especially as the film reaches its dramatic ending, the scenes between the two are immensely strong, helping lend weight to the final stanza of Divergent.
Electing to take a family-friendly approach to the gritty young adult novel, Divergent surprisingly keeps a good amount of its core plot intact. Fans of the book will notice obvious gaps in the story, specific scenes involving the initiates’ first jump and an attack involving a knife to mind, but for the most part the difficulties and tragedies of the Dauntless training are still present in the film. In fact, the twist thrown in at the end of the movie is actually better than the conclusion of the book, as Tris literally throws the story on its head to resolve the massive crises facing the post-apocalyptic society at the end of the film.
All this occurs in spite of a massively underutilized script. Actors and actresses spout exposition and throw away lines like there is no tomorrow. Actors such as Jai Courtney, who plays the other Dauntless trainer Eric, are wasted on redundancies and a been-there-done-that feeling. Anyone that walks out of Divergent claiming that they just sat through two hours of the first Hunger Games movie has a legitimate gripe; the film does feel all too familiar. The post-apocalyptic landscape, government ruled society and the one heroine against the world is immensely similar, but luckily Woodley is able to provide a saving grace, rescuing the movie from disaster.
An acceptable trip into young adult canon, Divergent is a passable adaptation and mediocre film. Dodging a bullet created by poor writing, the film relies on its three leads, Woodley, James and Winslet, to keep the film afloat, which they mostly accomplish. If released in 2008, Divergent would be a monster hit, but since we now live in a world where The Hunger Games and Catching Fire have been released to immense success, Divergent will unfortunately be remembered only as a very well-done clone that transformed into another money-pulling adaptation trilogy.