In “Divergent” a Big Brother style government has divided the post-apocalyptic Chicago into five factions: the altruistic Abnegation sect, the peace loving Amity, the “I cannot tell a lie” Candor group, the militaristic arm Dauntless and the smarty-pants Erudites.
At age sixteen all citizens must submit to a personality test that will help them decide which faction they will join. “The future belongs to those who know where they belong,” is the Orwellian motto.
Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is from an Abnegation family, but chooses to join Dauntless, the warrior faction charged with protecting the city. During the grueling training “Tris” meets future love interest Four (Theo James) who helps her disguise the fact that she is “divergent,” a person who cannot be pigeonholed into just one designation. “If you don’t fit into a category they can’t control you,” she is told.
“Divergent” feels like a greatest hits version of recent young adult stories. Mixing and matching “Hunger Games” with a taste of “Harry Potter” and a splash of “Twilight,” results in a new story that feels familiar, like a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist.
The film does take pains in the first hour to establish a world, with a unique set of rules—like once you choose a faction you can’t go back—and then promptly proceeds to break their own guidelines. The disregard for the rubrics blunts the power of the story, changing it from a high concept sci fi idea to simply a shifting situation for the characters to exist in. It’s a state of affairs passing itself off as an idea.
That won’t matter to the film’s core audience, teens, who will be more interested in Tris’s grrrl power, the dynamic of the Dauntless recruits and Four, the movie’s heart throb. Director Neil Burger aptly juggles all these elements well, and despite the plot lapses and some bloodless action—a zip line aerial scene that should be visually spectacular doesn’t make the eyeballs dance like it could—but the film is a little darker and grittier than you’d expect from a blockbuster-to-be. It would have been interesting to see what a director with true futuristic vision, like Terry Gilliam, could have done with the material, but ultimately it’s not about dystopia.
The young adult story thrives off subtext and in this case it is more about family, being yourself and facing fears, all subjects that will resonate with the target audience louder than any sci fi premise.
“Divergent” is “Hunger Games” light, but Woodley and James bring some heat to the leads and it’s fun watching Kate Winslet sneering her way through a villainous role.