Movie Review: ‘Divergent’

Divergent Movie Review
Shailene Woodley and Theo James star in 'Divergent' (Photo: Jaap Buitendijk ©2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.)

Reviewed by Ian Forbes

If there’s a genre of films that Hollywood is clearly not making enough of, it’s Young Adult novel adaptations. Wait, I think I have that wrong. Okay, so Hollywood, and more specifically Summit Entertainment, appears to be making a metric ton of these movies; and who can blame them? Twilight made them a giant stack of cash. Warm Bodies should have made more money but considering how much money those sparkly vampires made, there’s clearly no accounting for taste. (Yeah, I said it.)

In any case, Summit’s latest dip into the YA film pool is the adaptation of Veronica Roth’s series of books about a girl named Tris and the dystopian future world she lives in. The first in the series now filling up theaters is Divergent. Here, we’re introduced to a Chicago that’s undergone some major changes since I last visited some old college friends there a few months ago (shout out to my Posse). Apparently there’s been some sort of war and all that the audience is told at this point is that in order to protect the citizens of the city, a big wall with a Jurassic Park style electric fence has been built around it.

Inside the city, delineation of jobs has become more than a heading in the classifieds. Somehow, there’s a caste system going on. This is one of the biggest logical leaps that I forgave while watching the movie that continues to irk me upon reflection but let’s forget about that for a second while I continue with my rarely provided synopsis. Regarding these castes, or factions as they call them, there are five of them – all embodying certain character traits and signifying a certain societal role. I could spout off their fancy/over thought names but essentially, you have the selfless civil servants, the truth-valuing judicial branch, the ambitious nerds, the Parkour military, and the hippie farmers.

Somehow in the short time since I last visited Lou Malnati’s pizzeria this society not only has segregated themselves into these roles but the people within have fundamentally changed their human nature so that they really only identify with one ideal. The people, like our heroine Tris, who aspire to be a well-rounded human being are labeled “divergent” (see how neatly the title worked its way in there!?). For reasons that become all too clear, all too early, the ambitious nerds don’t like divergents and a not so secret cleansing of them is in full swing. The movie unfolds as Tris discovers more about herself and her family, falls for the boy many of your daughters may soon have a poster of in their bedrooms, and gets involved in a power struggle between the factions.

I will admit to coming into the theater will rather low expectations. Sure, this is a far cry from the abysmally bad Twilight series, as the casting department actually sought out actors who could play their roles and the script is aimed at literate adults (send your negative comments to [email protected]’tknow.idon’ However, as The Hunger Games franchise shares a number of similar themes and despite what you may have heard, I’m not actually a fifteen year-old girl, my only real interest in the film was to see Shailene Woodley in a role she hasn’t had the chance to play yet.

She was phenomenal in both The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, but neither role asked her to be a quasi-action hero. Here, she transforms herself from a demure, girl on the edge of womanhood, into a determined, well, the girl on the edge of womanhood thing didn’t really change but now she’s a bit of an adrenaline junkie and she can plan amazing games of laser tag tactical infiltrations. Helping her our are some decent supporting work by the likes of Kate Winslet, Ray Stevenson, Tony Goldwyn, Zoë Kravitz, and her co-star from The Spectacular Now, Miles Teller (though Ashley Judd as her mother was a bit of a stretch for where the character ends up going).

The visuals of this near-future Chicago and the destruction within were done well for the most part. There are also a series of scenes involving mental exams via supervised hallucinations that despite their predictable and formulaic nature, added a certain layer of intrigue to the mix. The fighting felt appropriately visceral at times but like with my earlier laser tag quip, there were many instances of trying too hard to earn some sci-fi credibility when it came to how the military faction learned to fight.

From a direction standpoint, Neil Burger did a pretty good job. Unlike the much-needed directing switch that The Hunger Games thankfully recognized when going into its sequel, I’d be happy with Burger continuing on. However, a quick check of who’s heading up the follow-up to Divergent (the 2015 planned Insurgent) shows that Robert Schwentke of RED and R.I.P.D. “fame” has landed the job. I can see how some of the action elements might work but hopefully he’s forgotten whatever he did on R.I.P.D. so he doesn’t compound any source material-based issues.

Speaking of issues, aside from some fundamental problems with the structure of the society that Roth laid out in her book that I really did put to the side while watching the film, the biggest gripe I have is the soundtrack. While there are plenty of songs on the soundtrack I personally like, a number of them were used in a very cheesy and distracting manner. It seemed like whoever layered the songs onto the movie took a page right out of the Twilight handbook. On the plus side, I thought the score was quite good, done by Junkie XL and featuring a few compositions with Ellie Goulding who also plays into the soundtrack quite a bit. As such, if you don’t like her, you’ll probably have more to be concerned about than I did but there you go.

The bottom line is this. Did you read and enjoy the book? Well then you’re likely going to enjoy the movie. I brought a friend to the screening who had read the book in order to give me insight into possible missteps in the adaptation but she was pleasantly surprised at what ended up on-screen. If you are like me and you haven’t read the book, then I’d say your best barometer is the most recent Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire. If you liked that, you’ll do fine with this. Hmm. Seems like I could have just written this last paragraph and called it a day. Saying this much about Divergent took a bit of time. Meh. Not the first time I’ve questioned my choices. Hopefully all this rambling helps your decision. At the very least, this is a far cry better than most of the awful films that have come out earlier this year. Hopefully this trend upward will continue.


Divergent opens in theaters on March 21, 2014 and is rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.

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