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'Divergent' review: A lobotomized, derivative hijacking of tired sci-fi elements

'Divergent' / Summit Entertainment
'Divergent' / Summit Entertainment
Summit Entertainment

Divergent, Young Adult, science fiction


It's slightly ironic that a story about free-thinking and independence is such an unoriginal, uninspired mishmash of tired sci-fi elements.

In short: young Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) tries to find her place living in a dystopian Chicago, divided among factions of virtue-based clans. When she learns she is 'Divergent,' however, Beatrice not only learns she may not fit in with her people - some believe she is a dangerous threat.

Anyone who's seen "Logan's Run," "The Hunger Games" or even "Harry Potter" has very little reason to watch "Divergent."

First: always beware a movie that starts with a prolonged, exposition-heavy voice-over. This is rarely the sign of a good film. Great storytelling reveals the values/rules/definition of a story's setting by showing, not telling ... "Divergent," instead, opts for straight-forward 'this is how the world is' exposition that is more insulting than intriguing.

The post-apocalyptic dystopia of "Divergent" is simultaneously frustratingly vague and insultingly simple. Apparently the future population of Chicago is split into five factions - none of which are fleshed out in any meaningful way. Each faction is an empty caricature of some human trait: the selfless reject self, the honest blurt out whatever is on their mind and the brave are tattooed adrenaline junkies. And that's about the depth or dimension "Divergent" gives to these 'factions.'

Like most 'young adult' genre stories, there's an obligatory/forced love story between Beatrice and a mysterious soldier 'Four' (Theo James). This unmoving, obvious relationship adds nothing to "Divergent," except to serve as a ploy to steal money from the CW crowd.

As if a malformed setting/culture and needless love story weren't enough, "Divergent" is a tedious series of training scenes - that ultimately mean nothing when the film abruptly switch gears in the third act.

At some point, "Divergent" stops being the story of a girl trying to find her place in the world - and a dullard sci-fi flick packed with simulations, serums and a revolution. This films desperately wants to tell a meaningful story about growing up and choice while also catering to the "Hunger Games" crowd with brutal, if PG-13, violence -- but fails to do either well because the foundation for its emotional themes and sci-fi genre plot devices are woefully neglected.

Finally, this story - about a girl who doesn't fit in and resists being forced into a box- is nothing if not absolutely heavy handed. The characters are broad. The villains are arch. The themes of choice and individuality are spelled out to an offensive degree.

About the only genuinely enjoyable aspect of "Divergent" is the always brilliant Miles Teller ("The Spectacular Now," the upcoming "Fantastic Four" reboot). But even Teller is reduced to a brash bully who taunts, teases Beatrice when she's down. He's incredibly amusing and effective in the few lines where Teller gets to shine - but he's largely wasted in this role.

Final verdict: Everything that could have made "Divergent" compelling is underdeveloped. The elements this film does focus on are either laborious or have not consequence at all by the end credits. Nothing about this story is original - this film is a flawed, failed patchwork of elements from smarter, better stories. "Divergent" is proof that not every young adult IP needs a film adaptation.