“Divergent” ** (out of 5)
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort,and Kate Winslet
Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor (screenplay), Veronica Roth (novel)
Directed by: Neil Burger
divergent [dih-vur-juhnt]: diverging; differing; deviating
If you find yourself lost in the apparent endless sea of similarly themed young adult novels & movies these days, please allow me to join you in your malaise. Sifting through the titles can easily become annoying, as it is chock-full of semi-colons and non-sensical word pairings (i.e. “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”- huh?). Imagine my relief when I first learned that “Divergent”, based on the first in a trilogy of novels, only had one word to remember for each book. How refreshing!
Combined with the dual casting of young Shailene Woodley (brilliant in “The Descendants” but restricted here) and Kate Winslet (trying her best to keep a straight face), I allowed a modicum of hope to creep in my head for this project. Perhaps this would be the one young adult adaptation up to the task of legitimizing the genre, thus allowing discerning audiences to take it seriously. Try as it may, “Divergent” struggles mightily to make logical sense, drags on for an eternity, and leaves us scratching our heads in befuddlement. Ironically, this offers very little in the way of deviation, or divergence, if you will, from its’ genre predecessors.
Please allow me to illustrate, for it is the crux of the film’s failure. Strong, free-spirited heroine that can’t be held back by the constricts of society? Check. Token description of a brutal, world-changing ‘war’ with no resonance or background? Check. Dystopian future with a factionalized society convinced to the point of law that human nature is the enemy? Check. Mysterious absence of babies or seniors? Check. Initially misunderstood, controversial hunk turned sensitive, wounded lover? Check. Hushed references to life beyond a ‘wall’ that is never explored, much to our bewilderment? Check. Young people required to perform adult actions without the film lending the gravity that those moments require? Check.
There are more, but I’ll spare the reader additional sarcasm. What I mean to point out is the film’s sincere lack of any fresh ideas or believability, despite its’ protestations that the ideas it presents are clearly a big deal. How can we take the ‘test’ seriously when we aren’t given the slightest dose of scientific reasoning behind it? Shoot, even if it’s an awful “Jurassic Park” half-hearted version of an explanation, at least give us something. For that matter, how can the ‘test’ be so important in determining where one belongs, yet the individual still has the ability to choose their destiny? Is the plot telling us that free will is an illusion? Does the plot know what it’s telling us? How can we buy that heroine Tris (Woodley) is able to wake from an unconscious stupor to catch up with a speeding train thirty minutes after Four (James) tells us she has “no muscles”?
It would be preferable to take the film on its’ own merits, and not allow silly things like logic, science, or cynicism to cloud my judgment. After all, it does appear that films like this are critic-proof; they simply need to satisfy fans of the source material, quality be damned. For fairness purposes, please consider that I gave the film a shot to impress. In fact, one particular scene struck my fancy, nudging me in the direction of satisfaction. On the eve of “Choosing Day”, the Prior family (Tris, her twin brother Caleb (Elgort), and her parents) shares a few quiet, tender, tense moments as Ellie Goulding’s entrancing “Hanging On” plays into the next scene. In this, I sensed the filmmakers deciding to elevate the source material and create a more human film.
Alas, ’tis but a fleeting moment, for the film nosedives into the typical immediately afterward. Tris goes against the grain and chooses “Dauntless”, quite possibly the most awkward-sounding, goofy name for a faction ever created. We’re treated to scene after scene after scene of training, training, training, with nothing particularly cool, noteworthy, or original to speak of. All the while, this Chicago-based society (where is the rest of the world???) is trying to eliminate ‘divergent’ minds. Conveniently (lazily), divergent Tris is tested by the one government-sanctioned tester that’s sympathetic, or we wouldn’t have a movie, I suppose. Think about this, though- murdering someone who doesn’t conform is a cold, ruthless, interesting, albeit unoriginal science-fiction premise. This isn’t the type of film that wants to understand or explore those big ideas, unfortunately.
In the time that has passed since viewing “Divergent”, I’ve actually grown more weary and less accepting of the film. Maybe I’m just tired of the genre’s attention. Perhaps I’m raw that the far superior weekend release (“Muppets Most Wanted”) will garner less box office and less audience affection. The likely truth is that I’ve grown more weary of ‘products’ marketed as films, especially in this particular genre. When there’s nothing new to take from the experience, and I feel like I’m simply contributing to the greenlight of a sequel, it’s an empty feeling. Whether it’s Gryffindor, District 12, or ‘Dauntless’, it’s all starting to run together for me.
“Divergent”, like others before it, and presumably more to follow, simply offers a structured way to package an entire entertainment experience in a consumable bundle, masquerading as a moving parable for our time. In the end, I feel less like having just seen a film, and more like I just got swindled by a used car salesman. It’s confusing, illogical, lacking in chemistry, and just doesn’t mean anything. Presumably, those familiar with the novels but somehow not bewildered by this film will inform me that I shall ‘understand’ by the end. Frankly, I can’t imagine caring less what happens to these characters. Give me the story of those living outside the wall, or the likely interesting and complicated series of events that lead up to the film, and I might just be on board. This? There’s nothing remotely ‘divergent’ about it.