Springing forth from the same lineage of Katniss Everdeen, far removed from the toxically weak Bella Swan bloodline, ‘Divergent’ heroine Beatrice “Tris” Prior is well worth rooting for, even if her debut film isn’t as compelling as its leading lady. Based on Veronica Roth’s best-selling YA trilogy, Neil Burger’s film is cripplingly faithful to its source material, and although he and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor have plenty of rich material to pull from, the film’s inability to distill it down to its most essential bits makes for a strangely bloated and often flatlining final product.
Yet, for its dragging run time – nearly two and a half hours – and its repetitive nature, ‘Divergent’ should both thrill fans and (hopefully) excite newcomers who will leave the theater wanting to know where its open ending travels next.
Much of ‘Divergent’ feels familiar, but Roth’s world-building still feels original, and there are plenty of secrets buried in both this first film and the planned sequels yet to come. Set in a future Chicago, the world of ‘Divergent’ remains purposely muddy – we know there was some kind of war that tore up the city and ravaged the population, we know that that citizens of the dilapidated city have been warned that nothing good lays beyond its massive protective walls, and we know that the new city’s “founders” long ago installed a rigid system that appears to keep everyone in tight and happy order – but other details are kept hidden, both from the audience and the actual on-screen characters.
It’s that rigid system that drives both ‘Divergent’ and its heroine, played by the always game and continually evolving Shailene Woodley (a rising starlet who has both the charm and the talent to keep her moving up the Hollywood food chain). All of the citizens of what used to be Chicago are divided into five groups – “factions” – that are defined by personality characteristics (the intelligent have one faction, the fearless have another) and professional tasks (for instance, the selfless faction is in charge of government). Citizens are born into a faction, but at the age of sixteen, they are all given the choice to defect to another on Choosing Day. Choosing doesn’t come down to just, well, choice, as all the possible choosers are first subjected to a personality test that is meant to determine which faction they belong in. Most people belong in the faction they were born into. Most people very easily fit into one category.
Tris isn’t most people. We’re told early on, via a necessary and mostly well-done bit of introductory exposition, that Tris struggles with her faction – the Abnegation, the selfless. Being charitable and kind and dedicated to the interests of others doesn’t come easy to Tris, not that she’s cruel or self-involved, it just doesn’t seem like her true nature. Well, it’s not. Tris’ personality test comes back inconclusive, but what that really means is that she’s – you guessed it! – Divergent. She’s suited for more than one faction, which means she’s not suited for any faction. This is not a good thing.
Told to hide her nature, Tris mostly obeys, before choosing the Dauntless (the fearless) faction on Choosing Day, shocking everyone who knows her, including her devastated parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn). What makes being divergent dangerous remains unexplained (and possibly even inexplicable) for the majority of the film, and the narrative often seems to forget that Tris’ fear of discovery is meant to be driving her. Fear, however, isn’t a big thing for Tris, which makes her Dauntless choice oddly sage for her.
The Dauntless, who are sort of bizarrely put in charge of security and law enforcement for all of the factions, appear to get most of their rocks off by using parkour as an actual means of transportation, screaming “woo!” a lot, playing loud music, and getting tattoos and piercings. They’re sort of like any batch of hormonally crazed teenagers, except they’re tasked with keeping their entire community safe. Putting guns in their hands seems a bit misguided, and though what sounds like a very “get off my lawn” motivated concern proves to be rooted in reality, the violent and immature nature of the Dauntless is ultimately exploited in an unexpected way.
Tris’ initiation into Dauntless is not easy, and the film is peppered with plenty of training montages and lots of big punches. It may help that Tris’ instructor Four (Theo James) is a hottie, but what would a YA film be without a dangerous romance?
The film is problematically faithful to its source material, meticulously depicting nearly every beat of the novel, an initially happy attribute that will please hardcore fans but could likely alienate plenty of potential new initiates (and, yes, even big fans might find long stretches of repeated material too tedious for their own tastes). Some of the elements of the world that Roth creates on the page are woefully weird when portrayed on screen, simple stuff that’s easy to forget when lost inside a book that doesn’t rely on visually portraying things, and basic questions like who is making these snazzy clothes? Where do the Erudite get their new cars? Why does every faction area look shiny and new while the rest of Chicago lays in ruin? reverberate throughout the film – and their appearance proves distracting.
There also appears to be a major disconnect when it comes to the repercussive meaning of choosing a faction – within the action of the film, the factions seem to frequently blend together on screen, from walking the streets together to all procuring supplies at the same massive depot, which makes the shock and awe of the choosing ceremony and the repeated warning that no one can ever go back to their old faction or see their parents again lose all power. In Roth’s books, the division between the factions is intense and absolute, though those messages are mixed in the film world.
However, Burger and his team have done an admirable job in building the world Roth imagined – the destroyed city of Chicago looks vivid and disturbing, the battles feel real, and the factions are well defined and depicted. Woodley really is the main draw here, though, and her performance is solid, exciting, and compelling. ‘Divergent’ itself might not be a thrilling enough start to a big blockbuster franchise, but Woodley alone makes the possibility and probability of seeing more of Tris’ adventures one well worth choosing.
'Divergent' opens in theaters on March 28.