Review by-Jarrett Leahy
Set in the post-apocalyptic shell of the city of Chicago, a group of survivors has established a “utopian” society where citizens are divided into five different factions based on the desired virtues of the community. In order to discover which path in life one shall take, all teenagers must consent to intensive psychological tests that help aid in their life decision. However, when Tris completes her faction test, she discovers that she doesn’t fit into just one belief group, but is in fact Divergent, a rare distinction that has been outlawed by the governing body because of its perceived threat to the society’s harmony. Now while training with her new fellow faction-members, Tris must hide her true identity or run the risk of being arrested, or worse, eradicated.
The recent critical and financial success of the Hunger Games franchise has set off a young adult novel adaptation explosion. Every studio seems to be clamoring to find the newest set of beloved books they can adapt to the big screen and make a billion dollars off of. Summit Entertainment, the production company that gave us the Twilight movies, joined forces with Red Wagon Entertainment to land the rights to the Divergent franchise, a trilogy of dystopian science fictions novels from author Veronica Roth. Summit brought in director Neil Burger to helm the first film of the trilogy, Divergent. Burger, a Yale graduate, is best known for directing the 2006 magician drama The Illusionist starring Edward Norton and the 2011 psychological thriller Limitless with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. Unfortunately, the moderate success Burger found with those two films did not transfer over to Divergent, as his final product suffers from a bad case of Hollywood conventionality, a rather ironic problem considering the film’s story warns against the dangers of unquestioned conformity.
Having no experience with the books, I’m unfamiliar with how true the movie stays to the source material, but I must admit my initial reaction was that the film’s script felt as if it were written by a team of fraternity guys. Starting right from our first introductions, as the Dauntless faction members come flipping off a moving train like a pack of rabid cheerleaders on cocaine, the film’s feel was one of a heightened over-exuberance that seemed to pander to its more impressionable younger audience. Chock-full of rah-rah moments, cliched slogans and rallying cries were thrown around like beads at Mardi Gras. The film never passed up the chance to slip in a myriad of cheesy initiation rituals. While I suspect these narrative devices were supposed to show the power of groupthink, they came off as corny and bromidic. On top of that, Burger never created a true sense of dread or urgency that successful dystopian dramas are known for. For a film that is supposed to be a frightening, futuristic cautionary tale, the level of fear never rises above a mild case of unrest.
The studio’s choice in the casting of Shailene Woodley to play the film’s lead protagonist, Tris Prior, was obviously a solid business decision, as there’s no questioning her flavor of the moment star power sold a slew of tickets at the box office. But in terms of the actual onscreen depiction she brings, Woodley simply doesn’t have the physical or acting chops to carry this franchise. The role of Tris requires a level of realistic physicality that Woodley’s tiny frame just can’t convince me of. While watching her many intense training scenes, Woodley felt like a little girl playing guns with the jocks. Adding to my dissatisfaction, Woodley’s emotional range lacked a level of…divergence. Too often her go-to facial expression was some version of a pouty, vacant stare that forced the viewer to transfer their own personal emotions. I hate to be yet another person who compares Woodley to one of her more talented peers, Jennifer Lawrence, but once you see it done right, it’s hard to watch and forgive overt inadequacy.
Another point of contention I had with Divergent were moments where the special effects teetered on the brink of mediocre. One scene in particular that comes to mind was an initiation rite involving a precarious zip line ride through the skyline of Chicago. As Tris swoops through and around dilapidated buildings, my suspension of disbelief was ruined by a profusion of substandard visuals. In 2014, with the amazing advances technology has brought to cinema special effects, it’s astonishing to me when a film offers visuals that are less than acceptable.
Suffering from a bad case of blockbuster conventionality, Divergent is a soulless, post-apocalyptic soap opera with subpar performances and a trite, hackneyed script. If one positive can be identified, the film does offer a handful of capable supporting performances. Academy Award winner Kate Winslet (The Reader) brings a truly conniving frigidness to her portrayal of villainous Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews, and Ashley Judd shows a surprising knack for handling a firearm. While I’m quite aware I’m not the intended audience of a film like this, even teenyboppers deserve a competent product for their money, and Divergent unfortunately just isn’t.-JL