In the last decade, there has been an explosive amount of young adult literature that has been brought to the screen. Of course, some of these have been better than others. On the higher end of the spectrum, you’ll find book-to film adaptations like the “Harry Potter” and, so far, “The Hunger Games” series, while on the lower end you’ll find shiny vampires. Now the trend continues with another series that I, and no doubt several others, had never heard of before it hit the screen, the “Divergent” trilogy, based on the books by Veronica Roth.
Set many years after a devastating war has destroyed much of the world, we find that Chicago has been walled off to protect themselves from what’s outside the city. The residents have divided themselves into five different factions, each representing what kind of people they are: warrior, intelligent, selfless, etc. Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), whose family is mainly Abnegation (helpers of others), is getting closer to the day where she must decide which faction she wants to join. In order to help, everyone takes a test that determines which faction they are suited for, but in the end the choice is up to them. However, her test is inconclusive, meaning that her mind goes for several different choices. People like this (Divergents) are deemed dangerous, so she is told that it’s best to keep it secret from everyone.
On the big day, she makes a rather rash decision to join the Dauntless (warrior/police) faction, which puts her on a path of intense training that will determine if she’s fit to be a member. The danger here is that, if she is below a certain cutoff line, she will be thrown out of the faction, and thus become one of the “factionless,” a group that pretty much sits around and does nothing. As her training progresses, her results raise a few red flags that cause others to become suspicious of who Beatrice (renamed “Tris”) is. If she is discovered, it could mean her death, but she has little choice but to take matters into her own hands when she discovers that one of the factions is planning a major takeover of the government.
Obviously Roth took a lot of influence from Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” books (young female protagonist fighting against the powers-that-be in a future dystopia), just like Collins was heavily influenced by Koushun Takami’s “Battle Royale” and its film adaptation (despite her completely laughable claim that she’d never heard of it), so there’s not a lot here that we haven’t already seen before. The only differences in source material are rather minor, so much so that they aren’t what really affect one’s enjoyment or dislike of the film.
What does affect it though is the way they are told. “Hunger Games” is paced relatively well, moving things along at a decent speed and doing a good job at keeping you engaged in the story. “Divergent” has major problems with this area. It struggles to keep the story on track and moving forward, diverting large amounts of time to a series of stretched-out training sequences that feel as though they take up half the movie on their own. All of this simply leads up to the standard confrontation with their enemies that leaves one with a very unsatisfied and indifferent feeling, which is not a good way to wrap things up when you’re hoping to bring the audience back for two more films.
Another major issue it has to deal with is the fact that Tris is just not that interesting of a character. She makes the random choice of joining the Dauntless faction, despite having the obvious choice of lying low in the Abnegation faction in order to escape detection, so it’s hard to root for her even from early on. What follows is the obligatory training sequence where we discover that she’s stronger and more resourceful than she thought she was, which, as already mentioned, just leads to the bland finale. As the character we’re supposed to be the most emotionally invested in, she doesn’t evoke very much sympathy, mainly because she feels like nothing but a stand-in “young female hero.” We should be with her every step of the way, cheering her on as she tries to take down the bad guys, but given that she just doesn’t do very much, it becomes rather hard to do so.
In the end, unfortunately we must add this to the lower end of the young adult literature adaptations. On the whole, it just feels extremely banal, probably because “Hunger Games” has been doing nearly the same thing (and doing it better) recently. That’s not to say that a similar story couldn’t work if it were told well, but the problem is that it’s not told well. There are large portions of it that could have been trimmed down considerably, which would have helped make it a much tighter film, instead of allowing the audience to lose interest as it wanders about. However, it doesn’t look like the studio is allowing these hindrances to stop them from moving forward (i.e. it made some money) as the next book is already being adapted. I suppose all we can do now is hope that it gets better from here.
“Divergent” arrives on Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. Despite much of the film being somewhat dark, the picture remains perfectly sharp throughout the 139-minute runtime. On the other hand, the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is extremely soft, so a large volume adjustment is needed in order to hear the dialogue at an acceptable level. However, as usual, once this is done, you are treated to a pretty good audio track that has little to complain about. Overall, there’s nothing major here to hinder your experience in either area.
Audio Commentary with Director Neil Burger: A commentary track from the director that shows that he doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about the film, so you can easily skip it.
Audio Commentary with Producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher: These two have even less to say about the film than Burger, so this is easily skippable as well.
Bringing Divergent to Life: A fascinating 40-minute look behind the scenes at the making of the film that features interviews with cast, crew, and the author. Definitely worth taking a look at.
Faction Before Blood: An intriguing featurette that has the cast and crew discussing the world that the film is set in. Another one that’s worth watching.
Deleted Scenes: About five minutes of deleted scenes that don’t add anything to the film, so they’re not particularly worth seeing.
“Divergent” is a banal experience that suffers from a stretched-out plot and uninteresting characters. Fans of the books may be able to take away a little more from the film, but everyone else will likely find themselves constantly checking their watch as the 139-minute runtime drags on. Ironically, a little divergence from the predictable plot would have done wonders for it. There’s not a single minute where you can’t tell exactly where the film is going, and for that, it becomes just another forgettable cinematic experience, one that won’t have you anxious to find out what happens next in the trilogy any time soon.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Noah, Dom Hemingway, Transcendence, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, Cesar Chavez, Rio 2, Under the Skin, Open Grave, Deadly Eyes, Jodorowsky's Dune, Lake Placid, Nymphomaniac, Afflicted, House of Cards: Season Two, The Lego Movie, Ernest & Celestine, 13 Sins, Joe, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Tim's Vermeer, Alan Partridge, RoboCop (2014), Alexander: The Ultimate Cut, Get on Up, How to Train Your Dragon 2
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.