The last 12 months haven’t exactly been kind to films based on young adult fantasy novels. With the exception of "The Hunger Games" & its vastly superior sequel "Catching Fire," everything from "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" and "Vampire Academy" to "The Host" and "Beautiful Creatures" has bombed. But this hasn’t stopped the suits in Hollywood from green-lighting upcoming YA fantasy adaptations like "The Giver" and "The Maze Runner" because unlike big budget catastrophes like "John Carter" and "The Lone Ranger," these movies come cheap, or at least relatively cheap. The real question though is how long will this trend sustain itself until sub-genre fatigue starts to set in? How long will it be until audiences throw their hands up and scream, “Enough!”? Going by the well-acted but middling adaptation of "Divergent," the first book in Veronica Roth’s best-selling trilogy of dystopian science fiction novels, it won’t be long.
Set in a futuristic Chicago that recalls the Windy City left in ruins by the transformers at the end of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," Divergent centers on a society divided into five factions: Amity, Abnegation, Candor, Erudite and Dauntless. A quick browse through a thesaurus will give you an idea of what the dominant character traits of the people classified into these groups are but for modern-day comparisons’ sake, let’s run through them: if you’re a pot-smoking hippie with an affinity for Bob Marley (and farming), you end up in Amity; If you’re of the “I cannot tell a lie” variety, it’s off to Candor you go; Erudite will be your future home if you’re one of those obnoxious know-it-alls; All the gun-toting, protein shake gulping, brain dead lunatics are lumped together in Dauntless; and for the pious God-fearing bunch – you’ll all be safe and sound in Abnegation.
Every year, all 16-year-olds are given an SAT-style aptitude test to decide which faction they’re best suited for. Interestingly, the teens also have the freedom to select the faction of their choosing, regardless of what house the sorting hat picks for them. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is a member of Abnegation. Although she loves her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), her wistful opening narration makes it clear that she wants out. Her life is thrown off balance when the results of her aptitude test reveal her to be suitable for multiple factions – thus making her “Divergent.”
Since being multi-faceted in a segregated, conformist society is akin to being a spawn of Hitler, Beatrice is urged by her aptitude tester/tattoo artist (Maggie Q) to keep her results a secret or else suffer the consequences – which in most cases means a dose of lead to the head. Since she has no interest in living with the know-it-alls in Erudite nor being a hipster farmer, Beatrice selects Dauntless as her future home. After all, a life of getting brutally beaten by men and jumping out of speeding trains is a better alternative than being a soot-covered bum or worse, growing old as a nun with mommy and daddy.
Beatrice’s decision to choose Dauntless also provides the filmmakers with the opportunity to showcase Tris’ transformation from hermit to warrior via action-heavy training sequences, instead of, say, law, agriculture or Sunday school sequences. Unfortunately, director Neil Burger ("Limitless," "The Illusionist") squanders so much time – a good hour and a half – on these warrior training sessions (and the rudimentary romance) that "Divergent" is never able to gain any narrative momentum. Instead of building towards the growing threat of a coup d’état by Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet – wasted), the film sputters by focusing on scenes where Tris gets her butt handed to her by scumbags like Peter (Woodley’s "The Spectacular Now" castmate Miles Teller) and Eric (the wooden Jai Courtney) or ones where she eye fondles her brooding trainer Four (Theo James – impressive). By the time the action and conflict kicks into gear in the last 20 minutes, it’s too little, too late.
I’ve been told that the film’s awkward format is inherited from the novel but pacing was an issue in some of the "Harry Potter" novels too. If Steve Kloves and team could work their way around the long periods of lull by enriching characters, cutting others, and delving into the larger themes at play, there’s no reason why Burger and screenwriter Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor couldn’t work around it here. Though Roth’s source material offers up a wealth of ideological themes – family versus self, religion versus law, segregation and class warfare, the film adaptation only offers hints of these. Whether or not the sequels will explore these themes in more detail is irrelevant.
But not all of "Divergent" is a mess. Woodley, who has been giving magnetic performances since her breakout work in Alexander Payne’s "The Descendants," makes for an exceptionally appealing lead. Her soulful eyes and melancholic gaze go a long way to illuminate Tris’ loneliness, insecurity and confusion. The fact that she’s able to make Tris this relatable despite being given next to nothing to work with, exemplifies how remarkably talented an actress she is. And for how problematic I find his work on the film as a whole, Burger does equip himself well with most of the film’s action sequences; a scene where Tris flies on a zip line through the devastated Chicago skyline is the film’s closest brush with buoyancy. He also manages to craft a world that looks, as derivative as it is, stunning – from the sterile production design to the purposefully drab costumes. Alas, what mattered most is the emotional content, and unfortunately, there’s not much there.