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Movie review: 'Divergent'

Divergent

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Imagine a future in which the Earth has been ravaged by war, Chicago being one of the only still-livable cities. To keep the peace, society divided into five factions based on virtues: Erudite (intelligence), Amity (kindness), Dauntless (courage), Candor (honesty), and Abnegation (selflessness), the latter being left in charge of the government. In this society, when teenagers turn sixteen they must choose which faction they want to belong to for the rest of their lives. Whether they decide to stay with their families, or join another faction, there’s no going back, and if they don’t make it in their new faction, they become homeless.

Tris (Shailene Woodley) trains with the mysterious Four (Theo James)
Summit Entertainment

This is the society put forth in director Neil Burger’s “Divergent”, the first film based on the young adult book trilogy by Veronica Roth. The story, like the ever-popular “Hunger Games”, revolves around a dystopian society—why teenagers are tending to drift toward that genre is beyond me, but hey, it’s better than vampires. Like “Hunger Games”, “Divergent” also has a young, tough female protagonist: Tris (Shailene Woodley), an Abnegation girl who, when she takes the test that is supposed to tell her which faction she belongs in on the eve of the choosing ceremony, finds out she is Divergent. In other words, she doesn’t belong in any particular faction, and this makes her dangerous because it’s hard to control her mind.

Tris chooses Dauntless, and outside of the underdog training story—Tris starts out as the weakest trainee, but gradually works her way up—she quickly discovers that revolution is in the air, as the Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) schemes with the Dauntless leaders to eliminate Divergents and overthrow the Abnegation government.

For the most part, the casting in this movie is pretty spot on. Woodley, an Oscar nominee who has already proven herself to be a great actress, is surprisingly tough, and plays her part well, starting out as the quiet, hesitant girl and transforming into an action hero. Perhaps the only complaint to be made is that Tris is supposed to be rather petite, and Woodley towers over her costars. Winslet is quietly wicked as Jeanine, and Jai Courtney’s Eric, the merciless Dauntless trainer, embodies the character just as Roth wrote him. Theo James was also a great choice for Four, the other Dauntless trainer who has a mysterious past, and an eye for Tris; his gruffness is very appropriate for the character. And word also has to be put in for Zoe Kravitz, who plays Tris’s brutally honest best friend Christina, and Miles Teller, who plays her bully, Peter.

In short, that’s a lot of great actors playing characters—too many characters to fit into one movie. The focus is Tris, and she never fails at being a hero the audience can root for from beginning to end. But there isn’t much time left to give the supporting cast their due. Moviegoers who have read the book will notice all that was left out or glazed over, while those who haven’t may be slightly confused. There are scenes involving Tris’s fellow Dauntless trainees that are supposed to be emotional, but fail to come off that way because the audience hasn’t been introduced to the characters involved. The relationship between Tris and Four is developed well, but the other themes—Peter and his friends bullying Tris, Tris’s friends alienating her because of her success in training—are introduced but not taken to fruition, and this hinders rather than helps the story.

Fans of the book will also notice other major changes in the film version, but some were made for the better. Introducing Jeanine as the villain early on in the film gives the audience a clear antagonist, something the book didn’t have so much. It also makes the suddenly very climatic third act less jarring by giving the viewers more clues about what is happening leading up to it. This shows that the director and screenwriters were thinking about what would work for the film, even if it meant not staying completely faithful to the original story.

The film’s pacing works well for the most part, although it’s rather astonishing how quickly Tris goes from being virtually unable to fight to kicking major butt—most of the film focuses on her training, not the revolution. It also ends at a good point, tying up the story well leaving room for a future sequel.

There are, of course, going to be a lot of comparisons of “Divergent” with “The Hunger Games”. Both are decent, but the major flaw holding back “Divergent” is that the whole basis of their society—a society in which tasks are divvied up based on people’s personalities—doesn’t make any sense, whereas “The Hunger Games” comes off as a future that could realistically happen. But I guess if it did make sense, there wouldn’t be revolution brewing among the people in the first place, and then we wouldn’t have a story—a story that I am, for now, interested in following to see where it ends up.

Runtime: 139 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.

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