DIVERGENT (Neil Burger, 2014)
After the war the survivors in Chicago construct a wall around their metropolis and maintain civilization by dividing the population according to five virtues. This society’s groups are the intellectual (Erudite), the peaceful (Amity), the honest (Candor), the brave (Dauntless), and the selfless (Abnegation), plus a factionless caste that subsists largely on the mercy of Abnegation. Each faction lives in its own part of the city and is assigned tasks that play to the class’s personality strengths. For instance, Abnegation runs the government, Amity farms the land, and Dauntless protects the city.
In DIVERGENT teenagers are tested to determine which faction suits them best, but ultimately they can choose to defect to one different from what they were born into and how they were assessed. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) has been raised in Abnegation but hasn’t always felt as though she fit in there. Still, selecting another faction means being separated from her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) and brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort). Beatrice’s test reveals that she is a good fit in Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite. Her tester Tori (Maggie Q) stresses that she keep this result secret and stay with the faction she knows. Being predisposed to multiple factions marks Beatrice as Divergent and thus viewed as a danger to those in power.
Despite the risks Beatrice decides to join Dauntless. For Tris, which she now goes by, life in Dauntless proves to be daunting. Eric (Jai Courtney), one of the Dauntless leaders, informs the new transfers that those who do not rate highly enough at the end of the initiation process will be banished to join the factionless. Her instructor Four (Theo James) may perceive that there’s something unusual about the initiate under his command.
Based on the first novel in Veronica Roth’s best-selling series, DIVERGENT comes off as an indistinct combination of other young-adult literature adaptations. With the isolated districts, dystopian America, and gifted but self-doubting heroine, it most closely resembles THE HUNGER GAMES, although these particular aspects are generic enough to cover a whole swath of fiction than resemble any one source specifically. The overly familiar nature of the material strains patience in going through a programmatic set of level completion and ground-laying for future installments. Much of DIVERGENT focuses on Tris enduring the three stages of initiation, which would be all well and good if more characters jumped to the foreground. Like others adapting a property with a passionate, established fanbase, it feels as though director Neil Burger and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor had to treat the popular book as sacred text and thus depict everything. Slash a half-hour out of this, and anything significant would likely not be missed.
DIVERGENT introduces some potentially worthwhile questions about the limitations society places on people, but this is not a film with much on its mind beyond hitting the repetitive plot points. Basic information about how this particular world came to be accepted by all and what exists beyond the walls is withheld, presumably to be answered in the next film and more. This delaying tactic is surely profitable for movie studios, but in narrative terms it keeps everything in a holding pattern that tests the viewer’s good will.
Woodley is not wholly convincing as an action star, but she does well with the emotional nuances of Tris. The camera often holds tight close-ups of her as, like in THE SPECTACULAR NOW, she conveys a regular girl’s struggles to make sense of new experiences and difficult choices. It’s a role of discovery that Woodley approaches with gentleness and fearlessness. She’s better than the film around her. Maybe the sequel will realize that.