That sound of thunder you hear is hordes of pre-teen girls rushing out to see Theo James remove his shirt in the new film, based on the most recent best-selling young adult novel, Divergent.
I won’t waste my time, as most critics have, comparing the film to the likes of The Hunger Games or the Twilight Saga. Divergent is a mistake all on its own.
One hundred years after some unnamed apocalypse that decimated civilization, Chicago is a city divided into five factions based on what each decides is the principal virtue to govern life: Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty), and
Hufflepuff Amnity (peace). When every member of society reaches the age of sixteen, they must choose a faction with which to live the rest of their lives. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and brother Caleb (Ansel Egort), raised in Abnegation by their parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd), have reached said age. In order to better help them choose, each teen is administered an aptitude test — one of those creepy virtual reality simulations brought on by a serum — revealing which virtue fits them best. As antagonist, and leader of Erudite, Jeanine (Kate Winslet) puts it, “The future belongs to those who know where they belong.” Problem is, Beatrice does not test well…or rather, she tests too well. She is what is known as “divergent,” a person who cannot be categorized into one faction. And therefore, a threat.
When it is time for Beatrice to choose, she abandons her family, never feeling truly selfless, and joins Dauntless, the brave, loud, emo kids, and reinvents herself as “Tris.” Now that Tris is a Dauntless initiate, she must pass a series of grueling tests of strength and will from her instructor Four (soon-to-be covering every tween girl’s wall, Theo James) to prove she really belongs. Not belonging means you must live out your days “factionless,” homeless and unwanted. If that is not pressure enough, Tris cannot reveal to anyone that she is divergent or risk sudden death; in addition, the world outside Dauntless is on the brink of war, and her family is right in the center of danger.
Sounds complicated, right? If the story was half as intricate as that plot synopsis would suggest, I might have enjoyed this film. Unfortunately, out of the one hundred and forty minute run time, very few moments are dedicated to life outside the Dauntless walls. Contrived of montages and minor spats with her fellow initiates, Divergent — the first of a planned trilogy (that will inevitably be made into four films) — tells the story of Tris’s time among the Dauntless, learning to be a soldier, losing and winning small battles. I yawned more times than I felt engaged. There are long periods of insufferable silences and knife throwing, more Army training video than anything else. I realize the need to set up characters and a world before the battle rages on, but the major threat of Winslet’s Jeanine or the fact that Tris is divergent seems relatively small. Very little set-up is done for any villain; an over-zealous Dauntless leader Eric (Jai Courtney), the antithesis of Four, seems no match for the heroes. The death toll is surprisingly high, so you would think that the stakes would seem that way; but most of the relationships are not cultivated and enriched enough for us to care when people die.
Speaking of character development…there is none; or rather: very little. Everything is black and white: the good guys are good, the bad guys are evil; each character is either one, the other, or a lemming. Theo, love interest for Tris, is obviously good except when he is trying to eschew favoritism for irresistible Tris, and all that just makes him…so….dreamy. True, Theo James — whom I will always see as this guy — is very attractive, but every time he looked at Shailene, I felt icky. The true age difference between the two is only seven years, but Ms. Woodley looks very much the sixteen year-old she is portraying, and Mr. James looks very much the twenty-nine year old that he is. Though James is quite the actor, I just think this is bad casting…just my opinion…
And if these characters, for the most part, are so defined by their faction, why do they act in such opposite ways? Jeanine, supposedly the most intelligent character in the film, the leader of Erudite and loudest proponent of the faction system, commits intolerably boneheaded mistakes regarding her master plan. Old favorites of villains like: having your goons load illegal substances in broad daylight so that the main characters might see them, revealing your entire plan to your enemies, and, my personal favorite, supplying a Death Star-like flaw in your evil software program. The purportedly brave Dauntless spend most of their time acting on their fear. Whether or not these character flaws are supposed to reveal a fly in the ointment of the whole faction system, it is never addressed, and therefore, must not be intentional. And where are all the old people? Occasionally, someone over the age of forty-five is shown, but they tend to be covered in dirt and begging for food. I know this film highlights the transition from youth to adult, but what about the leaders, the elders? I counted six. Must have been a budget thing.
Director Neil Burger brings the book to life in complex sets and inspired production design. This decimated landscape is peppered with dwellings of the new society, beaming with cold steel and terrifying symbols of industry. Innovative technology based in today’s reality highlights the difference between our current society and that of this dystopic future. (You would think they would use some of that technology to rebuild the city…but nah, they’ve got enough buildings!) Burger brings out the best in most of his actors, namely Woodley and Miles Teller, who gets to play against type as the depraved fellow initiate Peter. But alas, these positives just put a pretty bow on a script with inept characters, strikingly appalling dialogue, and an unrelentingly slow plot.
If you want to suffer through this film, might I suggest attending a screening at your local dine-in theatre, order several shots of your favorite bourbon, and take a drink every time the word “divergent” is uttered on screen. For such a secret, they seem to say it. A lot.
GRADE: D+. Despite the best efforts in direction by Neil Burger, cinematography by Alwin H. Kucher, production design by Andy Nicholson, and music by Hans Zimmer, this is source material that never should have been made into a film. The script is so terrible that nothing can eclipse it. Shailene Woodley, like Winslet before her, has a chance to design the path of her own career. I hope there are more The Spectacular Nows and The Descendents than Divergents. As good as she is, however, she does have a Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan mouth breathing type of tick…side-eye. Shailene flashes the audience with copious amounts of side-eye. Add that to your drinking game.
Afterthought: I think it is important to note that these tween films inspire a whole new generation of readers in a society that has grown to express themselves in one hundred and forty characters or less. In that way, I guess we should thank studios for banking on the almighty screaming-teenaged dollar, but I want to make it clear that I wish better for them. I wish that these kids would choose Austen over Roth. Rowling over Meyer. I wish that they would be able to identify poor writing and create their own intricate worlds. But you have to hand it to writers like Roth: how will the youth of today know good writing until they’ve been exposed to the bad?