Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Zoë Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Maggie Q
Runtime: 2 hrs 20 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Official Website: https://www.facebook.com/Divergent
Opening Day: 21 March 2014
Synopsis: DIVERGENT is a thrilling adventure set in a future world where people are divided into five distinct factions based on their personalities and virtues, Tris Prior is warned she is Divergent and will never fit into any one group. When she discovers a conspiracy to destroy all Divergents, she must find out what makes being Divergent so dangerous before it's too late. Beatrice Tris Prior, portrayed by Shailene Woodley in the big-screen adaptation, is born into Abnegation, which esteems selflessness above all other characteristics, but when tested she discovers she is “divergent” and possesses characteristics from more than one faction. Warned that her divergence is dangerous, Tris keeps her test results secret and chooses to join Dauntless, a daring group that values boldness and courage, where she meets Four (Theo James), a leader of that faction. Other factions include Erudite, Candor and Amity. Tris Prior finds her life threatened when an authoritarian leader seeks to exterminate her kind in her effort to seize control of their divided society.
Every studio hopes for a hit YA franchise, and in particular for Lionsgate-owned Summit Entertainment, the imperative is even stronger seeing as how they had unearthed that lucrative segment with the ‘Twilight’ series. And so ‘Divergent’ comes with high hopes that not only will it become hit YA property, it could potentially enjoy the same astronomical success as ‘The Hunger Games’, especially since both are of the sci-fi genre set in a post-apocalyptic world with fresh young faces.
Adapted from Veronica Roth’s book, it imagines a dystopia where society is organised into five distinct factions based on personality types, each understanding and playing its role in order to keep the peace. These are Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite, the names rather self-explanatory in describing what they represent. Youths are tested at the age of 16, given two likeliest factions from the results of a hallucinatory test, and then at a Choosing Day ceremony made to pick one of the two in which they choose to belong.
As narrated by our lead character Beatrice Prior (The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley), there are those fit into more than two categories which are labelled ‘divergents’ and cast out to live as homeless vagabonds on the pretense that they do not belong. Needless to say, Beatrice is a titular ‘divergent’, and warned by her testor (Maggie Q) that she must keep this information secret lest she be the subject of a witchhunt led by the leader of the snobbish Erudite faction Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet). So at her ceremony, unlike all the others, she exercises her free will to join the Dauntless, who train to be soldiers keeping the peace.
Even with the task of laying franchise groundwork, it is both surprising and disappointing how much time the movie spends inside the subterranean Pit where Tris and the rest of her initiates train under the tough yet tender Instructor Four (Theo James) and the harsh and controlling leader Eric (Jai Courtney). From sparring to knife throwing to shooting, screen writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor spend about an hour laying out Tris’ Dauntless boot-camp training and the dynamics between the trainees, in particular with two Candors - one a snide competitor played by Miles Teller and the other a loyal friend played by Zoe Kravitz.
There is of course the budding romance between Tris and Instructor Four, the latter of which turns out to be a ‘divergent’ himself and who ends up teaching her how to overcome the final ‘fear test’ of her training. At no point however does director Neil Burger inject a sense of urgency into the proceedings, which unfold relatively unhurried and without consequence until the final half-hour. It is at best a drag, at worst a bore, and while parallels have been drawn between Tris’ training and Katniss Everdeen’s in ‘The Hunger Games’, you’ll find the former here oddly devoid of danger or purpose.
Only in the last segment is there some measure of thrill as a power struggle between the Erudites and the Abnegations build up into real conflict unfolding on the streets of an already war-ravaged Chicago. Burger assumes that his audience’s patience will eventually pay off in a rushed final act that throws everything it can into the mix - including some heavy urban warfare, exposition, shifts in character - but it is a peculiar case of ‘too much too late’ that ends up making you frustrated more than anything else. There is little poignancy even with two key supporting characters meeting their demises within the short span of ten minutes, and that is also a result of the film’s flawed construct, which diminishes the familial bonds illustrated in the novel between Tris and her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) and twin brother (Ansel Elgort).
With little chance to flex her acting muscles, Woodley is hardly any match for Jennifer Lawrence, and indeed doesn’t quite grasp her character well enough to put forth a consistent and compelling portrait of Beatrice. At least she does share some screen chemistry with Underworld: Awakening’s Theo James, the bond that builds slowly between them rather winning to say the least. Other thespians like Winslet and Judd give solid supporting turns, though they are yet again hemmed in by a ham-fisted script that hews too closely to the book’s straightforward prose.
On his part, Burger tries his best to build a convincing vision of a futuristic Chicago, but fails to convey the extent of a hyper-militarized and technologically advanced society on the verge of factional conflict. The postwar cityscape hardly leaves much of an impression, though the drug-induced mind trips that Beatrice takes boasts some degree of visual ingenuity that recalls Burger’s far superior work in ‘The Illusionist’ and ‘Limitless’. Worthy of special mention though is the score by Junkie XL (with Hans Zimmer listed as executive music producer), which hits the right notes more than you would expect in certain scenes.
Still, it’s hard to imagine ‘Divergent’ being the kickstarter the way the first ‘Hunger Games’ movie was; though both share similar narrative blueprints, this adaptation feels inert where the latter is lively, failing to engage its audience with its female teenage protagonist’s rite of passage. Unless you’re a fan of the books, you’ll probably be lukewarm about the next instalment ‘Insurgent’ whose production is already underway; indeed, true to its title, there is something off about ‘Divergent’ that never quite reconciles even till the end of the movie.
(Shailene Woodley and Theo James make a good couple; unfortunately, true to its title, everything else in the movie seems to go off in the wrong direction)
Review by Gabriel Chong