I admit the only reason I went to see Divergent was the presence of Shailene Woodley, one of the better young actresses working today, who has the added bonus of being easy on the eyes. An adaptation of an example of one of the better known of the hot trend in YA fiction–the post-apocalyptic dystopian bloodsport story with a strong female protagonist–Divergent makes for a very long, sluggish film that has some pretty good action sequences but some cockeyed sociology.
The film is set in Chicago, many years after a devastating war. The residents don’t even know if they’re the only people left on Earth, so it’s a pretty small population. To keep peace, they are grouped into five factions–Erudite (the smart), Amity (the hippie farmers), Dauntless (the army/police), Abnegation (the selfless caregivers) and Candor (the legal system). You choose your faction as a teenager, after undergoing a test (sort of like the sorting hat in Harry Potter), but despite the results of the test, you are free to choose your faction, and it doesn’t have to be the one you grew up in (a parlor game for those who see the movie is to speculate on which one you would choose–I would go for Erudite, because it seemed like the one with the less manual labor). Those who have attributes of more than one faction, called divergents, are threats to the state, because they don’t conform, and are hunted down and killed.
Even for science fiction, this is pretty hare-brained, because a society like this wouldn’t last for five minutes, and because you can choose to leave your faction of origin there would be a lot of cross-breeding, thus divergents would be the norm, rather than the exception. So this whole set-up gets the biology and politics wrong, but I guess we just have to go with it, because it’s a long movie.
Our heroine is Tris (Woodley), who grows up in Abnegation, where they are so self-denying that they only can spend a few moments in front of a mirror before it’s locked up. Her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) hope she stays with them, but after her test reveals she is divergent (the tester, Maggie Q, tells her this but keeps mum) Tris picks Dauntless. The next huge section of the movie shows her in boot camp, which mostly consists of her getting pummeled.
Her severe trainer (Theo James) comes to admire her pluckiness (but of course), even though she is kind of a disaster when it comes to fighting. She helps her team win in a war games competition because she’s the only one bright enough to climb to the top of a Ferris wheel (apparently seizing the high ground wasn’t taught in training). When she undergoes mental tests, it’s apparent to James that she’s divergent, but guess what! So is he!
The climax of the film has Woodley and James escaping the clutches of Kate Winslet, who is the head muckety-muck of Erudite, who want to use Dauntless as their army to seize power from Abnegation. There are more books, and a good box office will mean a sequel.
If they do make a second picture, I encourage director Neil Burger (if he’s the next director) to speed things up a bit. Two hours and twenty minutes is way too long for this sort of thing. There were also too many hallucination sequences (the future society is big on serums that make you do this). Woodley, who has to endure comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence of The Hunger Games, makes a completely different type of heroine–she’s much more average than the self-sufficient Katniss Everdeen, but more than holds her own in the role, projecting a sort of “how did I get myself into this” vibe that may just be the actress and not the role.
The success, or lack thereof, of Divergent will determine if more of these pictures are made. There are lots more book series out there, including a trilogy that begins with Pure, which I read last year and would make a pretty good movie. Probably a better one than Divergent.
My grade for Divergent: C-.