Divergent is chock-full of holes, but Woodley and her bright band of co-stars try valiantly to save the day.
With with young actresses emerging as bankable leads in sci-fi and action pictures, taking a bit of the pie from their hulking male counterparts, casting the right actress in those lead roles is more crucial than ever. Jennifer Lawrence has set a high standard with her work in the Hunger Games series, and Shailene Woodley holds her own as the star of Divergent, the first installment of adaptations of Veronica Roth’s best-selling YA series.
Woodley, a proven talent (The Spectacular Now, The Descendants), takes command of the film as our heroine Beatrice with a strong spine and perceptive wit. Unfortunately, even her presence (along with the rest of the rock-solid cast) can’t patch up the dull script, which is head-scratchingly nonsensical at worst, campy fun at best.
The aforementioned head-scratching begins with the film’s setting, a near-future dystopian Chicago divided into five distinct factions, each with their own role to play in maintaining an orderly, functioning society. This societal structure is so impractical it’s funny, though it serves its ultimate narrative purpose of providing rabid YA fanboys and girls with the same fantasy tribalism that was an appealing foundation for the Harry Potter series.
Beatrice was raised in the faction called Abnegation, an Amish-like group that prides itself on selflessness and humility. The kids in Dauntless, the enforcer faction whose members traverse the damaged city streets (and rooftops) like a parkour S.W.A.T. team, catches Beatrice’s eye as she shares their (ostensible) taste for adventure and camaraderie. Now that she’s turning 16, she’ll have the opportunity to switch factions, if she so pleases, after taking a VR test meant to suggest which caste she’s best suited to based on her attributes. Administering her test is a tattoo artist named Tori (Maggie Q), who informs her that her attributes are too numerous to shove her into any faction, an anomaly referred to as–you guessed it–Divergent.
Problem is, Divergents are considered a threat to society as they disrupt the order of the faction system. Erudite, the faction of intellectual snobs, hates Divergents the most, and their leader (Kate Winslet) seems hell-bent on sniffing them out and doing god-knows-what with them. (Probably something evil!)
Beatrice chooses to align with Dauntless, where she trims her name to Tris and gets thrown into a sort of bootcamp where the brutality of the training borders on felonious. She makes a handful of friends, bonding immediately with petit nice-girl Christina (Zoe Kravitz). Miles Teller plays a prick former Candor who bullies Tris at every turn, a dynamic made more interesting if you’ve seen the two co-star in The Spectacular Now.
Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) is too precious with the source material, and the overwhelming amount of expositional information (conveyed largely in uninspired voiceover by Woodley) dampens any urgency and drama the actors manage to get rolling. For every well-acted, emotional minute between Woodley and her co-stars, there are 10 hollow minutes of tiresome explaining. The art design is forgettable and generic, and the world Roth has built doesn’t seem to be grounded in any sort of logic. Most of Chicago is literally crumbling to bits, while the yuppies in Erudite walk around in buildings that look as immaculate as giant Apple stores. This is the most obtuse kind of social commentary, since the logistics of it all don’t make any sense. Roth’s analogy is too extreme, too undercooked.
The hunky Theo James plays Four, Tris’ commander and crush. Woodley and James have good chemistry, but again, the script betrays them. When Tris glimpses a bit of Four’s back tattoo, and he peels off his shirt to show her the rest of it without a second thought, it’s hard not to let out a little groan. At one point, Tris proclaims proudly, “I am Divergent!” as Burger zooms in slowly. She might as well be looking straight into the camera. It’s schlock like this that no actor, no matter how skilled, can recite naturally.
Divergent is too by-the-book, literally and figuratively (and ironically), for it to be a viable challenger to Hunger Games‘ throne atop the YA market, but it’s got some thrilling set pieces (an urban zipline scene is a standout) and has a great cast, making it a distant–but solid–second. Divergent is chock-full of holes, but Woodley and her bright band of co-stars try valiantly to save the day.