FILM REVIEW: Divergent

Another teen fantasy bites the dust.

It has grown increasingly difficult in recent years to keep the various dystopian futures depicted in young adult novels being brought to big screen separate. Between The Hunger Games, Mortal Instruments, and this month’s Divergent alone there are almost as many similarities as there are differences. There is always a class system of some kind that does not exist now, and its usually ruled by notable celebrities playing essentially background roles for the first 4-5 hours (or two film of three films) of the story. The protagonist – which seems to always be a female teenager – must fight against that broken/rigged/unjust system in order to save some something or someone or some group of people while simultaneously falling in love and learning a strong lesson about how much one can accomplish if they simply believe in themselves.

Been there, done that. Right? If you agree, Divergent is not for you.

Shailene Woodley leads a cast filled with notable faces as the female heroine known as Tris. She exists in a world where society is broken into factions based on virtues, but she cannot seem to find a faction that feels right for her. She believes she is meant to be a little bit of everything, which in her universe is known as divergent, and it’s widely believed to be the worst fate that can befall someone because it essentially means they are doomed to journey through life without ever finding place where they belong. Those who are divergent are viewed as outcasts by society, and in the eyes of the government they are nothing more than a threat to the norm that needs to be stopped.

Tris attempts to escape her destiny by joining a faction that is responsible for protection, which allows her the perfect opportunity to escape her family and be trained for battle. You know, just in case any trouble should come her way in two sequels that are already being planned. She meets a cast of characters, including the quasi-bad boy she loves as much as she claims to hate, and for a while it seems the divergent label almost feels like a dream. As soon as Tris begins to feel as if she has become a part of her new community, however, she learns of a plot to overthrow the government that would incite a war between the factions and lead to the eventual destruction of all divergents that only she and her trusted team of good looking co-stars can prevent.

The biggest problem facing Divergent aside from the multiple scenes and universe traits that feel as if they could easily fit into any other teen fantasy film released in the last three years is the fact it’s intended, at least in part, to setup a franchise. It’s similar to the issue The Hunger Games encountered, which is having to serve as the predecessor to larger, more exciting stories and therefore having to bare the weight of not only introducing a new universe, but also giving viewers a reason to feel connected to the people who inhabit it. By film two you can hit the ground running, but in the first entry in any saga you have to dedicate time to introductions, and that seems to make up nearly an hour of Divergent’s two-and-a-half hour runtime.

There are a few things worth praising in Divergent, and the majority of those elements reside in the cast. Woodley may still play runner-up to Jennifer Lawrence in terms of badass female heroines, but she holds her own opposite the seasoned chops of Kate Winslet, Mekhi Phifer, and Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn. This will probably come as no surprise to those who saw her play off George Clooney in The Descendants, but I dare say she is even better here.

Theo James, Woodley’s love interest, is more looks than talent. He holds his own whenever someone is needed to make Tris feel butterflies, but as soon as Jai Courtney or Miles Teller appear on screen he fades into the background. I’m not sure what it says about your leading man when the supporting male characters leave a bigger impact on the viewer, but it is probably not good.

Advertisers will lead you to believe Divergent is the dystopian teen romance action fantasy adaptation you have been waiting for, but in reality it’s another lackluster attempt to ride the coattails of more successful YA franchises and it lacks the originality needed to separate itself from the half dozen similar titles that will roll out later this year. The cast keeps things moving as long as they can, but the story and energy ultimately fall victim to ‘opening act’ syndrome, causing viewer burn out long before the final frame.

Written by: James Shotwell