The new sci-fi film, “Divergent,” brings to life the popular young-adult novel by Veronica Roth. “Divergent” tells the tale of a futuristic, post-war, dystopia in which teens must choose their life-long factions to purportedly maintain the harmony of society.
Roth wrote much of the novel when she was a 21-year-old at Northwestern University, and the story is, indeed, reminiscent of the trials and tribulations of college and campus life. Around age 16, teens in this future walled-off and in disrepair Chicago, must join one of five factions at a “Choosing Ceremony:” Abnegation (charity without vanity), Amity (peace-loving), Candor (honesty without regret), Dauntless (courage with some impulsivity), and Erudite (intellectual). Although individuals are “tested” before choosing said factions, teens can choose to supersede their genetic loading for a particular faction by “knowing their own mind” and assigning themselves to a group of their choosing. However, once chosen, individuals cannot change to a different caste group, which may mean leaving one’s family of origin behind.
Beatrice (played by Shailene Woodley of “The Descendants”), later known as Tris, seems to be a less-than-satisfied teen member of the Abnegation clan. For as long as she can remember, she has had to push herself to be entirely selfless to others, and has long admired the freedom and power of the Dauntless protectors. Prior to the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice finds out in testing that she does not distinctly belong to any one faction. She is instead the dangerously-labeled, and rare, “Divergent,” one who has characteristics of all categories. Young Beatrice is told by her assessor that she must hide her Divergence, as such gifted individuals are targeted for destruction by the Erudite, particularly by the power-hungry, intellectual Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Shaken and unsure about her new secret, Beatrice radically decides to choose what she has always secretly wanted (and surprises her selfless parents) by becoming a member of Dauntless -- leaving Abnegation forever.
Leaving behind her past, Tris (as she now calls herself) quickly is thrown into the violent training in the underground world of the Dauntless. She finds herself in hand-to-hand combat, for which she is initially woefully prepared. But slowly, Tris increases her physical stamina by tips from the mysterious Dauntless instructor, Four (Theo James of “Downton Abbey” fame). Tris continues to improve her ability to fight, and finds herself to be remarkably talented when hooked up to a hallucination-inducing fear machine. It seems that Tris’ Divergent cognitive abilities help her to slay her fears readily. Although Tris is not as physically gifted as other Dauntless members, her tenacious perseverance and flexible confrontation of her fears allow her to continue as part of the impulsive and aggressive “protectors” of the society. But, trouble is a-brewin' between the factions. As such, Tris soon finds out that the reported balance between the castes may be at risk, and that she may become directly involved in the uncertainty of what is to come.
“Divergent” is certainly a much better young-adult novel adaptation than other recent attempts like, “The Host” or “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” and that improvement has much to do with the nuanced performance of Woodley. Woodley (star of one of my top films of 2013, “The Spectacular Now”) is certainly a skilled actress, who draws in her audience with compelling emotion, and she does the best she can with the script. In her portrayal, Woodley readily reveals Tris’ awkward transition from a young, naïve teen to a self-assured powerful woman. Most certainly, Woodley is the glue that hold the otherwise bland production together.
Much of the rest of the film, however, is a grey-toned dystopia with a not-too-engaging plot. Part “Hunger Games,” part “Brave New World,” and part “Gattaca” teamed with elements of a teen “Fight Club,” the long-winded 139-minute film feels loooong, choosing to emphasize repetitive fight scenes over fascinating plot progression. And, although the teen-fan audience with whom I saw the film openly sighed over the Tris-Four burgeoning relationship (a la “Twilight”), the relationship was far too superficial to bring much interest to the more mature viewer.
In all, “Divergent” is a sub-par sci-fi film, bolstered somewhat by the performance of Woodley. While it may appeal to its teen base, its charm may wane for older viewers. “Divergent” is rated 3 - of 4 stars.
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