Directed by Neil Burger
Identified 21 March 2014
For an outsider rather perplexed by the overwhelming success of The Hunger Games series (both the young adult books and the mainstream movies), Divergent is partly more of the same, but there's also a bit more soul and relatability in Divergent's simple message: Don't give up.
It's not like comparing War and Peace to Gone with the Wind, it's more like comparing Looney Tunes to Terrytoons; there are different characters, different sensibilities, but Divergent and The Hunger Games have lots in common.
Divergent is another dystopian tale for young adults and entering its world requires learning some new lingo, along with the fictional world's politics and lifestyles. Ultimately, though, both are about restoring order and equality to all. Basically. In a nutshell.
In this case, the setting is Chicago, presumably sometime in the 22nd century. Between now and then, a devastating war has left the Windy City a shambles of dilapidated buildings protected by a gigantic security fence, albeit one that rather inexplicably has a train line direct from downtown for ease of accessibility.
Class society is back in a big way. Your dominant trait will dictate your entire life and citizens are pigeon-holed into one of five classes, called factions:
- Erudite - the smarty pants
- Abnegation - the selfless
- Amity - the peaceful farmers
- Candor - the ones who speak openly (the lawyers)
- Dauntless - the protectors and adventurous
The homeless, those who failed in their faction (and there's no such thing as going back home to the parents for a second chance!) are called, simply enough, Factionless.
Divergents are those who are multi-talented and cross multiple factions. They're a threat to all those one-note wonders roaming the streets of Chicago. If you don't fit neatly into one category, you can't be controlled.
It is actually a more interesting premise to dig into than The Hunger Games, where the over-the-top costumes and ridiculously contrived names, all set within the confines of a reality TV-style competition to the death, form a storyline that isn't all that compelling regardless of the multi-hundreds of millions of dollars it's generated.
Divergent is the first in a trilogy of books by Veronica Roth and the screenplay was written by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (TV's Game of Thrones). That's an interesting pedigree on the wordsmithing side and it's directed by Neil Burger, who found considerable positive attention with The Illusionist and Limitless.
But that's behind-the-scenes stuff. The eyes will all be on Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now) as Tris, this trilogy's answer to Catniss Everdeen, and Theo James (TV's Golden Boy) in his potentially breakout role as Four, a leading figure among the Dauntless. They're both good. Woodley's already proven her acting chops as George Clooney's daughter in The Descendants and James makes a good impression as her hunky mentor - and presumed love interest in the next episodes.
Don't Give Up
At least to this reviewer's sensibilities, Tris makes for a more compelling character than Catniss. While it is equally obvious both are the lead hero given they are each the central character in their own worlds, Tris at least has a more interesting character arc.
Tris is exceptional, a notion that's for all intents and purposes frowned upon in society today. Everybody needs to win a trophy these days and 200 years from now that leads to everybody being neatly categorized for mind control purposes. Then, within those neat, orderly categories, everybody begins to dress the same, choosing from the same limited color palette.
In her journey from a family of appeasing, caring abnegators to a self-realized member of the Dauntless tribe, Tris has to overcome her self-doubts, the kind she's been born into and society has continuously reinforced, as she passes through one weed-out challenge after another. Through standardized testing, she comes to know she is one of those rare Divergents and getting in touch with her full potential is something compelling. It's also an element that probably should've been explored more deeply than it is in Divergent.
Nonetheless, Tris has the makings more of an Indiana Jones type, flawed and human, which is more interesting to observe than the Luke Skywalker, virtually infallible stylings of the uber-strong Catniss Everdeen. For that matter, after seeing Divergent, it seems as though Woodley's might very well have the capacity to tackle other strong female roles. Lara Croft comes to mind as an interesting possibility.
To top it all off, Tris is smart enough to value her mind and her body. That hot boy Four, who also stars in his own series of books by Roth, gets a smack in the face instead of a roll in the hay.
Once Divergent establishes its world and characters it becomes a rather fun ride for the bulk of the time, then it stumbles into a clunky conclusion involving a factional war for political control of the city. It turns a little silly and exudes an oddly low-budget vibe during the big climax, but at least it manages to hold the attention and stimulate the mind as Tris transforms herself into something more.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.