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Movie Review: 'Divergent' (2014) Starring Shailene Woodley

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Studios are constantly in search of the next “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games,” or “Harry Potter” franchise, with best-selling books being the primary source of episodic additions. They’ve found just such a novel (an entire trilogy by Veronica Roth), containing the similarities and elements so highly coveted – but originality definitely isn’t one of them. “Divergent” is once again a teen-oriented science-fiction adventure, full of action, romance, and adolescent consternations. Instead of focusing on a love triangle, survivalist thrills, or a great magical evil, this derivation is all about independence, corporatism, and the dramatic coup d’état of a corrupt government. The setting is still a postapocalyptic dystopian remnant, the small gathering of heroes is still vastly outmatched, and unconvincing love banter is carelessly tossed about.

Hundreds of years after a war devastated the planet, Chicago is reduced to a small community walled off from an unknown outside threat and hidden amongst dilapidated buildings. The founder of this surviving civilization has divided all inhabitants into five factions, each with different skills and jobs. At an undisclosed age (sixteen according to the book), each member must choose between the path of an intellect, a farmer, a public servant, a politician, or a soldier. Youths are expected to follow their heritage and are discouraged from selecting a role unaligned with their birthright. Nevertheless, an archaic choosing ceremony (involving the ridiculous ritualistic cutting of the hand and squeezing blood drops into a symbolic bowl) allows everyone to select publically, after having taken a mental test that informs of personal skills and mindset.

Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) originates from the selfless “Abnegation” faction, but chooses to pursue a career with the brave “Dauntless” clan (a controversial move instigated by her rare multi-faction tendencies, dubbed “divergent”). She’s separated from her family, seemingly permanently, for a 10-week training period that isn’t as militaristic or educational as it is gladiatorial, anarchical, and naturally nurturing for bullies. Rules of combat and scoring points are made up along the way, with failure rewarded with a casting out to the homeless, filthy, starving “factionless” throng (its existence is obvious evidence that the intended peaceful societal system in place spawns inequality, greed, and dictatorial leaders). Beatrice becomes “Tris” as she sets about learning how to fight and quell her fears. She finds herself drawn toward instructor Four (Theo James) while learning about a plot by conspiring, power hungry politician Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) to violently overthrow a discordant sect.

This strange, totalistic world, full of peculiar traditions, is explained via bland voiceover narration, hindered further by rock beats, spontaneous running, and borderline parkour maneuvers conducted by the Dauntless pack (which serves as showy, daredevil guardians of the city). The premise, which has the unmistakable feel of “The Hunger Games,” also borrows considerably from “Equilibrium,” “1984,” “City of Ember,” and even “Bee Movie.” The extended sequences of training, camaraderie, and simulated war games hints at “Starship Troopers,” while a laughable introduction to coed showering facilities that is, of course, never alluded to or shown again, vaguely reminds of “Robocop” or “Aliens” – a desperation to compare with movies filled with mature characters that could actually cope with such an R-rated concept. There’s absolutely nothing unique about “Divergent,” though the action-packed finale desperately attempts to fix the staleness of lengthy exposition and unfamiliar environmental establishment.

Falling victim to the same problem of many science-fiction or fantasy epic startups, the story is 90% introduction. The majority of the movie is merely a first act. Resolutions aren’t even attempted and many characters are clearly saved for subsequent chapters, which prevent the satisfaction of revenge or clarity for this mystifying society. “Let’s just say they built the fence for a reason,” insists Four. By the time the themes of free will, chemical brainwashing, and rebellion are put into action, it’s too late. The plausibility of confronting an army, sneaking into a heavily defended command center, or conquering mind control drugs are at a low, especially when the lead hero is an unpersuasive, untoughened insurgent incapable of killing the villains that are in desperate need of dispatching.

- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)

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