PLOT: In a futuristic, and mostly decimated Chicago (which seems to be the only city left on the planet), the remnants of mankind have been partitioned into five factions. When a child comes of age, they take a test which matches them to a faction, although they have the right to make their own choice in a choosing ceremony. When Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) takes her test, she’s classified as “Divergent” with characteristics from each group, which is feared by the Erudite faction – as they’re too difficult to control. With her true nature hidden by a sympathetic administrator (Maggie Q), Beatrice chooses to join the Dauntless faction, the city’s warrior class, where her trainer is the mysterious Four (Theo James) who immediately senses her true nature and potential.
REVIEW: DIVERGENT is the latest young adult adaptation from Lionsgate. While pretty much all of the studios have tried – and failed – to launch YA franchises in the wake of TWILIGHT, Lionsgate managed to score big bucks with the blockbuster HUNGER GAMES series, and is clearly hoping to hit pay dirt once again with this, an adaptation of the popular series by Veronica Roth. DIVERGENT is close enough to HUNGER GAMES that it almost feels like a clone. Shailene Woodley has definitely been cast in the Jennifer Lawrence model, with both having proved themselves capable of carrying serious indie dramas before being turned loose on a franchise.
While Katniss seemed like a part tailor-made for Lawrence, Woodley is less ideal as Beatrice, who renames herself Triss once she joins Dauntless. While there’s no doubt Woodley is a good actress (which she’s proven time and time again in movies like THE SPECTACULAR NOW and THE DESCENDANTS), she doesn’t make as dynamic an action heroine as Lawrence. In the early scenes – where she struggles with her violent Dauntless training – she’s fine, but when the movie take an action heavy, surprisingly violent turn in the last act, she seems a little too fragile.
Another issue is her chemistry with co-star Theo James. While he’s excellent as the brooding Four (far superior to any of the young male actors in TWILIGHT or even HUNGER GAMES), there’s very little chemistry between him and Woodley. She looks more like his kid sister than a love interest. Although there may not be a huge difference in their actual ages, Woodley looks much younger than him, and it’s a bit off-putting. Still, while she seems somewhat miscast, Woodley puts so much effort into the part that she never comes off badly. It just feels like a casting decision that didn’t quite pan out, although if this turns into a franchise it’s possible she’ll grow into the part.
Like HUNGER GAMES, tons of marquee adult actors pop up in the cast, with Kate Winslet as the marginal baddie, an elitist “Erudite” with designs on becoming the society’s new ruler. Winslet plays a good bureaucrat, although her screen time is fleeting, and as a result she doesn’t make a huge impression. Ashley Judd is more effective as Triss’ mother, who (naturally) has a secret which comes into play in the third act. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD co-star Jai Courtney plays a brutal trainer with Dauntless, but he doesn’t come off as menacing as he should, with tattoos and earrings that make him look Emo rather than threatening. Meanwhile, Woodley’s SPECTACULAR NOW co-star Miles Teller is utterly wasted in a smallish part as a scheming inductee into Dauntless, although he at least manages to convey some real menace, which is more than can be said for any of the other villains.
Like most first installments in wannabe sagas, DIVERGENT tries to cover a lot of ground, with the film running close to 140 minutes. Given how much time is spent on exposition and training, it feels like a very long wait before any of the action or intrigue begins, and once the movie finally does kick into high-gear, everything is dealt with so quickly that it feels anti-climactic. This feels like a surprisingly straight-forward film for director Neil Burger, who with THE ILLUSIONIST and LIMITLESS showed some real style behind the camera. Any stylistic flair he brought to those films is absent here. The constant pop-rock soundtrack also tends to wear on the viewer, with many of the romantic ballads being tough to distinguish from each other. However, the actual score by 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE’s Junkie XL is actually quite good.
Clearly, DIVERGENT is a film that’s targeted at devoted readers of the novel, and they very-well may think it’s an excellent adaptation. As a film, it’s never too tough a slog (which is more than can be said for any of the TWILIGHT’s) but it doesn’t measure up to THE HUNGER GAMES, although there are enough good things about the first film that the series could improve as it goes on. Until then, DIVERGENT is probably best appreciated by tweens and teens.