One of Divergent’s strengths is that it isn’t “The Host” or “I Am Number Four,” but every time the movie almost becomes interesting, it swerves back to the format’s conventions.
Divergent is one of those vague post-apocalyptic tales that looks like it was paid for on someone’s credit card despite an $85 million budget. It looks like it was shot in the ghost city of Pripyat, Ukraine; there are very little special effects (aside from maybe parts of the “fear” sequences and the short-lived zipline scene); and the prop lists consists of a train always running in the same direction, a springy net, an assortment of plastic guns, and whatever non-descript clothes the characters wear on their backs.
(As “The Host” exemplified, sometimes less is, well, less.)
People have labeled “Divergent” as “Hunger Games Lite,” which is understandable but rather unfair because “The Hunger Games” at least seems to make more sense. A revolution against the ruling class leads to the subjugated provinces being forced to pay tribute and having their children drafted into annual games for sport? That story is an old one; I can buy it.
What we have here, though, is more of internalized angst — the unnuanced adolescent quest for identity coupled with typical cynical mistrust of the system — externalized into a contrived plot. The remnants of Chicago have been divided into five rigid factions to which everyone must belong; and unless you’re “Divergent” (i.e., don’t fit into the system), you’re presented as part of the uninspired 95% — soulless, uninventive drones who just follow orders and support the establishment. Rebel against the system? Any sane person would, or at least set up a council populated by people from all the factions; but apparently few of the adults have any backbone or common sense, so that job is going to fall to the kids. The movie seems to be a cross between flipping the bird at tests like the popularized Myers-Briggs Trait Inventory (MBTI) and the typical unease teens feel at the thought of selling out one’s ambitions to find economic and social security in an undesirable career.
Woodley plays Beatrice (later renaming herself “Tris,” which sounds less stodgy), a daughter of Abnegationists who has reached the age of choice, but of course she tests as a multiple (Divergent) and ends up choosing Dauntless — which is not just the most exciting-looking faction but the one most convenient for the plot (since it allows for fighting and action sequences — the movie would far slower if she had picked the equivalent of the farmers, altruists, lawyers, or brainiacs). While they’re supposed to be cops and soldiers, Dauntless seems to spend the days and nights running around town whooping like drunk frat boys on the last day of class, climbing stuff and jumping off things. I suspect their mortality rate is much higher than the other factions.
Woodley is never quite convincing as a girl with enough edge to stay in the game; underneath she seems soft rather than hard. It’s telling that, no matter what trouble she gets herself into, her eyebrows and hair remain picture-perfect or merely mussed in the way a model’s would be. However, she and Tobias (Theo James, noticeably older than his character but more than adequately solid and empathetic) hold the movie together; both are likeable and relate well to each other, and I wanted to see them happy.
The movie trundles on by the numbers, each beat as predictable as the rails under a train track. Tris is the underdog but manages to make each cut mostly because she doesn’t quit. Tobias, the hot, kind, quiet guy, of course falls for her. And of course he is Divergent as well. (Believe me, that’s not really a spoiler.) She manages to bump a few times into Jeanine, the head of Erudite who also serves as the movie’s baddy; and Winselt plays the role with perfunctory coolness that doesn’t fool us for a second about her regard for Tris as more of a structural nuisance rather than an interesting rarity. Toss in some predictable family tragedy to clean up loose plot threads + provide additional motivation for Tris to really rebel, and you’ve got your setup for the next movie.
I can’t speak for Roth’s original text (which I haven’t read but suspect was deeper), nor for the travails of condensing this book to the screen, but the movie as completed seems overgeneralized — vague and thin. What would have happened if the factions and adults had been treated less as cliches? What if the deck hadn’t been stacked so much in favor of the Divergents? I’m hoping that later movies will reveal substantial reasons that could justify the existence of the faction system, or at least why the authorities fear those who have no regard for the establishment aside from simply the threat of losing their power.
You don’t necessarily need to be Divergent in order to be cool.