Divergent is a solid actioner that young adults will enjoy and most adults will find serviceable. It has thrilling adventure, smoldering romance, and is set in a fresh dystopic universe with intriguing thematic questions. It’s escapism well done. What the film can’t escape, however, are its young adult literature roots, and it’s difficult to see past the pure functionality and shallow logic of much of the movie.
It’s the future, and after a grievous war, a small population of survivors regrouped in the remains of Chicago to restore a modicum of society. They established a new order split into factions based on disparate virtues, like Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless and others. When children of all factions reach a certain teenage year, they’re tested to see which faction they truly belong in. If they disagree with their result, the child is still free to choose which faction he or she would like to join during the ceremony that proceeds the testing. There are a very few individuals, however, who don’t favor one faction over any other during the test. These people are known as Divergents, and they are considered dangerous by Erudite because Divergents cannot be controlled.
Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), from Abnegation faction, is of age to undergo her faction test. When she discovers that she’s divergent, she conceals her results from her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) and hides away within the Dauntless faction. There she meets new friends (Zoë Kravitz, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen) and makes some enemies (Miles Teller). She also meets the terse and mysterious Four (Theo James), who acts as a mentor to the newly joined.
Now enduring rigorous training to remain part of Dauntless, Beatrice shortens her name to Tris and does her best to compete. While she fights to make a name for herself, she discovers that Erudite, led by the calculating Jeanine (Kate Winslet), is maneuvering politically to usurp the power from Abnegation, which runs the government, and Erudite will stop at nothing to gain control.
Not having read the book on which the movie is based, it seems as though the film made a heroic effort to cram as much of the book into the film as possible. At times, it feels like there just wasn’t enough runtime to fully develop many facets of the story. Expositional dialogue and voice over talk about a war, but don’t reveal any details. Similarly, the Dauntless faction is the standing military for the city, but who or what they fight is never revealed. Finally, there’s a political subplot that develops into the main plot that feels shoehorned into the movie as a way to raise the stakes and allow Tris to become embroiled in a story that is larger than her own. The book, no doubt, develops these story aspects and more in a satisfying manner. Regrettably, the film glosses over details like these, making the film seem shallower than it needs to be.
Nevertheless, Divergent should be received well by its target audience; this is a great adventure for young people – especially girls. This film presents a world where being different and not conforming is not only perceived as a kind of super power, but it’s also seen as edgy and dangerous. This is a world where adult supervision is largely lacking, and when adults do appear, they’re either the enemy or sacrificial lambs. It’s teenagers that are making things happen and saving the day. And, of course, this is a world where the plain, shy girl can get the attention of the hunky, tough, but deeply wounded older guy who could easily have his pick of the litter. It’s the kind of escapism that teens are going to love.
While the cast does a respectable job throughout – there are no poor performances – no one has a chance to shine either. For the most part, everyone plays an archetypal role that is flat and one-dimensional. Jai Courtney turns in an authentic menacing performance, but isn’t anything more. Similarly, Miles Teller is natural as an obnoxious antagonist, but he doesn’t evolve from there. The biggest disappointment is with the Shailene Woodley who just isn’t interesting enough to earn audiences’ emotional investment. She has the acting ability to lead a film, but not the charisma or presence. Impressively, Kate Winslet offers the best performance in the movie despite having such a limited role. Her smart choices make big impacts in every scene she’s in, which aren’t many.
Fans of the book will probably be satisfied with the film, considering its length and how much it attempts to present in 139 minutes. Newcomers, however, will most likely consider Divergent as just a pleasant distraction that is neither remarkably good nor bad. It’s disposable entertainment that won’t be remembered long after it’s over, but while it lasts, it also won’t disappoint.