Directed by: Neil Burger
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Kate Winslet
Running Time: 2 hrs 20 mins
Release Date: March 21, 2014
PLOT: In a post-war future where people are divided by their personalities, one young woman named Bearice (Woodley) strives to break down the walls that confine and divide everyone.
WHO’S IT FOR? Those whose attendance isn’t guaranteed by familiarity with the books should tread carefully. If curiosity still drives one to see this sooner than later, I’d recommend the cheapest matinee with the largest screen. IMAX patronage for this film is completely unnecessary.
Keeping in the spirit of John Hughes, Divergent is a high school story set in the land of Chicago, albeit 100 years in the future and after a war that has apparently caused a lot of problems outside of the city’s walls. While this tale involves adults, it features an ethos close to the categorization of The Breakfast Club, by attempting to divide individuals by their personalities in groups called “factions”. To quote the bumper sticker philosophy of Judd Nelson’s John Bender from Hughes’ film, “Screws fall out all of the time, the world is an imperfect place,” and such occurs when Divergent’s Claire Standish steps into the picture, and decides to challenge the metaphorical walls that lock everyone out from each other. With “Don’t You Forget About Me” sorely missing from its soundtrack, Divergent is like other teen stories, a tale about young people taking on the new world by uniting, even the freakiest of the geeks, but this time with an unbelievable idea of the future.
Though written around its high school mentality, Divergent is an epic story with a lot of science fiction content that director Neil Burger does not have the focus to package all together. Exposition in the beginning of the film tries, both through voiceover and dialogue, but Divergent fails to sell its dystopian concept both articulately and logistically, which damns the film at a pretty early mark. As the movie then begins to focus on only one of the factions out of the five (of which I couldn’t name all five if a gun was to my head), there is no bigger world context to provide perspective for this whole new world, or even a conflict to nervously anticipate as training sequences begin to pile on top of each other. (Imagine if The Hunger Games only focused on one of its twelve districts?) Even then, the purpose of Beatrice’s faction, that of policing the city to take care of the other factions, is barely elaborated on.
Without planting this crucial sense of intrigue, consistent energy evades the film through its laborious 140 minute running time. When its not creating a slow tale of a wannabe soldier learning to bone-up through a montage or two, it dirges on a romance about falling in love with your apathetic TA. Moments spent in Beatrice’s camp as well lack any interesting dynamic between characters. The fact that these soldiers have coed showers, Starship Troopers style, is more interesting than what their interactions may say about young adults learning to co-exist.
Trying to service a wide audience palette, Divergent uses action sequences in its more uninspired efforts. A game of “Capture the Flag” with training guns in tow has no excitement, fittingly matched by the dry O.K. Corral gun combat that takes over in the third act. Kudos is due to the stunt workers of the film, whose work is made more obvious in the film by editing than it has to be, and also the sound design, for providing some ugly sounds of teen fist meeting teen face, allowing the audience to at least take its training sequences with a nervous edge.
Divergent is constructed with a decent cast, who provide the film’s most consistent source of effort. Woodley is a fine young talent to follow into the movie’s incomplete world, playing game with the physical and emotional aspects of the movie. Even then, the movie strikes false when it dolls her up in makeup, as her recent The Spectacular Now proved that she didn’t need coverage to hold a frame (and Burger sure loves his close-ups of her in this movie). As well, one would assume that in a military society like Dauntless, facial styling wouldn’t be that big of an option (despite everyone’s Hot Topic-like affinity for tattoos).
Woodley works aside other individuals whose acting promise expands immediately outside of this underwhelming gig, like Theo James’ assured presence. In particular, Miles Teller has shown in previous movies (Rabbit Hole, The Spectacular Now) to be bigger than the Vince Vaughn-esque comic relief he can lean towards, his appearance in Divergent not helping his cause of multiplex audiences seeing him in a more dimensional light.
Aside from an unusual appearance from Kate Winslet, the film’s most distinct supporting character is of course the city of Chicago, surviving on turbine engines and ziplines, with downtown standing as one of its supposed strong relics. While its always lovely to see the city given such a close-up, its involvement in the movie is indicative of the corners cut within this already massive film. Sure, it’s a small delight to see Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue turned into peaceful pedestrian locations, complete with a train system that travels over the river and across from the NBC Tower. Some utilization of this landscape is with the same attention as Transformers: Dark of the Moon. But the inclusion of UChicago’s Mansueto Library had me exchanging laughing glances with Chicago Sun-Times critic Bill Stamets, as we both knew how awkwardly unchanged the building was despite its setting in the film. Even during interior shots of the building, a glass dome that is certainly impressive for modern times, extras are sitting at regular desks, creating a B-movie’s sense of futuristic appeal. The laziness in dressing up this element is then certified by the building next to the library, the Franke Institute for Humanities, which remains also untouched, but has had a much longer life, and thus a very dated appeal, dated blocky exterior and all. Perhaps Divergent is trying to assume that some UChicago buildings will remain untouched in a 100 years, as there are certain relics within that university now? If so, this must certainly be the case with an unspecific auditorium in the film, which features ragged yellow chairs that look like they are long overdue to be replaced in 2014, never mind 2114.
In the scope of YA novels being adapted into films, Divergent shows that there are other mistakes to be made within these fantasy projects outside of mushy romances; I for one can understand people wanting to villainize Twilight in comparison, but bashing Twilight is a thing of the past. While the heat from Woodley and James is tough to find in their brooding courting, its the work of Burger that really holds this movie back from realizing its full-scale purpose, a potential epic about clashing differences of human nature minimized to a story about training camp. And even then, it leaves one yearning for the intelligence and creativity of last year’s pointlessly underrated Ender’s Game, which didn’t just settle for a smaller picture or ideas as this film does.
With this being said, it is not so bad that the film is coming in a post-Hunger Games or Ender’s Game world, but that it arrives not long after a non-YA film, The Lego Movie. Those who have seen The Lego Movie will see Divergent as unenlightened, especially with the ruthless damage that Phil Lord & Chris Miller did to Hollywood’s sanctimonious arc of “The Special.” The joke is now on Divergent, where nothing is awesome, when characters toss around its title in numerous occasions. As Woodley declares “I’m divergent!” the fire is extinguished. It is but a whimper from her character, the Molly Ringwald who decided to ride with the Judd Nelsons, and a mewl from this heavily-promised film. All as Divergent fails to be neither anything strong, nor anything special.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10