There is no shortage of young adult novels that encourage the individual and warn against conformity; Divergent is one such novel. However, the film based on the massively popular Veronica Roth novel ignores those lessons and aims to have absolutely no originality or individuality from its acting right down to its execution.
The film opens a la Twilight with a brief and information-rich voice-over that gives us the low-down on a dystopian and futuristic Chicago. Society has been segmented into five personality-based factions: Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, Candor, and Abnegation from which our heroine Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) hails. At the age of 16, Beatrice, later known as ‘Tris,’ must take an aptitude test, which all young people must take in order to discover which faction they would be most apt to join. The test results in a recommendation, but it is ultimately the decision of each individual to select the faction they want to join. The catch is that once a person selects a faction, there is no going back and a rigid training session begins that if not passed results in that person’s dismissal and the shameful label of being “factionless.”
After Tris’s aptitude test comes back inconclusive, she resolves to join the Dauntless faction, dedicated to fearlessness and bravery. If this process sounds similar to another YA novel’s “categorization” element, that’s because it is absurdly similar to the sorting ceremony in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Harry Potter’s uniqueness is a cause for one particular recommendation by the sorting hat in The Sorcerer’s Stone, yet he disregards it to declare his allegiance to another house. Tris’s “inconclusive” test is actually code for her being a unique anomaly within society called a Divergent. Simply put, this means that her aptitude is not wholly within one faction but a combination of them all.
The film’s opening act is relatively interesting and does a passable job of explaining the world these characters inhabit. The problem is that there is not enough “newness” to this story and while the film is just another adaptation of another beloved young adult novel, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be held to the same originality standards as any other genre. Furthermore, once the Tris enters the world of the Dauntless, a whole new bag of issues emerges that sink the film even farther.
Most of the film from this point forward is an excruciatingly long and played out training set-up piece for a lackluster climactic finish. Tris’s struggles at Dauntless are pitted against her secret identify as a Divergent. Will she be discovered? Are there other Divergents? Will she hook up with the hunky “I don’t want to be just one thing,” Four (Theo James)? These questions will be answered, just don’t hold your breath. The film gets so caught up in its own mythology, that it never really even considers convincing the audience why these “Divergents” are so dangerous. Divergents are people who can think for themselves and have multiple skills and talents. It becomes increasingly clear why Erudite faction leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) is not fond of Divergents, but why does the rest of society view them as dangerous? A few tacked on lines of dialogue towards the end attempt to answer this, but not to any satisfaction.
A few words about Shailene Woodley. She has emerged on the scene with great success in films like The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. In Divergent, Woodley’s performance is quite bland and well, wooden. She broods, she emotes with deep and hyperventalative breathing, she conveys confusion at the right times, but she never quite achieves a connection with the audience worth rooting for. Director Neil Burger is at least partly responsible for this flavorless and wishy-washy performance. His direction involves running back to the well of successful YA novel adaptations and hand picking the qualities he thought worked in other places. Woodley gives a very controlled performance and unfortunately the one in control is a strong candidate for being factionless! D+
Divergent is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes.