Divergent wasn’t made for me, a married father of two whose societal role – or “faction,” to borrow a relevant term – was established years ago. I acknowledged that, even as I enjoyed the bulk of Neil Burger’s franchise-launching adaptation of author Veronica Roth’s young-adult novel. It’s a laudable, confident start to a potentially exciting series – the fate of which now rests in your hands.
On its surface, Divergent looks like post-apocalyptic, science-fiction escapism. Roth’s story exists in a distant yet recognizable future, where survivors of an unseen war have walled themselves away from an unseen threat in the bombed out city of Chicago… or, what’s left of it. Desperate to survive and eager to restore some sense of order, society now divides individuals into groupings known as factions. Honest truth-talkers are assigned to Candor. Intelligent folk land in Erudite. The bravest of the brave defend the city as members of Dauntless. Since we don’t have a Sorting Hat, teens take a “test” that tells them which faction they’re destined to join. The choice, however, ultimately rests with them.
Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her family belong to Abnegation, the selfless members of this balanced society. During her test, however, Tris is told by the mysterious Maggie Q that the vital results are “inconclusive” and she is “divergent,” meaning she doesn’t fit comfortably in any one faction. Most might consider that a compliment! In Divergent, that means you are a threat to the powers that be. (Personified here by Oscar-winner Kate Winslet. Because if Donald Sutherland can get some of that Hunger Games money, dammit, then Winslet ain’t too proud to juggle a handful of Divergent scenes!)
Strip away all of the sci-fi, however, and Divergent is just a formulaic but emotionally anchored coming-of-age movie about an impressionable young girl trying to find the right cool clique. My generation had The Breakfast Club, where you know that John Bender would be Dauntless and Molly Ringwald was a total Erudite. These days, everything needs to take place in a desolate wasteland, where attention-starved loners must overcome lethal obstacles to not only discover their identities, but also overthrow a corrupt government and save the world. Forget about having a leisurely day off, Ferris, there’s a vicious army led by a sorcerer who has come back from the dead and wants to drink your blood!
No wonder kids are so stressed out these days.
Unfairly or not, Divergent is being straddled with the same label that has accompanied – and will continue to accompany – every YA feature in a post-Twilight world. Is it the next Hunger Games? Or will it be the latest The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Mortal Instruments, and on and on.
Divergent is better than those films, yet not quite on par with either Hunger Games movies. It benefits from reaching theaters later, though, because it learns a few lessons from the YA efforts that failed before it. Burger, for the most part, keeps his emphasis on character development… even as his grounded characters fight to establish themselves in an unusual world. Woodley is an expressive young actress whose relatable features invite us on Tris’ personal journey. We feel her pain as she endures physical hardships while training to be accepted by the thugs in Dauntless. Her chemistry with the handsome Four (Theo James) simmers beneath the story but doesn’t overwhelm the mythology – as was the case in the Twilight films, where Bella and Edwards became the whole reason those movies existed. There’s a joyous scene where Tris, after winning a tough game of capture the flag, takes a zipline ride through Chicago’s broken skyscrapers, and because Burger took his time establishing this girl and her world, we’re just as exhilarated as she is by her impossible accomplishments.
It can’t last, unfortunately, and if you know Roth’s book, you know that a gear-shift will attempt to increase the pace of Divergent, to the detriment of the film. Burger’s last act is a silly shoot-em-up of a finale, where seemingly major plot points are barked out in the middle of fire fights. This all might make sense to those who’ve read the book. On screen, these scenes felt like they were from a different, less interesting sci-fi movie and stapled onto the impressive work Burger did during the first two hours. It’s a shame.
That being said, Divergent remains a worthy introduction to a familiar yet still extraordinary universe that hedges its risks to reach a teenage demographic but still teases more than enough potential. It’s the first YA adaptation I’ve seen in a while that genuinely had me excited for the continuation of the story.
Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Sean created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.