With Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Maggie Q. Directed by Neil Burger. Written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor.Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality. 139 minutes.
It’s safe to say that if not for the success of “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games,” and “Twilight,” then DIVERGENT would probably never have been written, much less turned into the latest bid to adapt a YA book series into a movie franchise. Other series (e.g., “Percy Jackson,” “Beautiful Creatures,” “The Mortal Instruments”) have tried to make the leap and faltered. Let’s put that aside for a moment and consider the film on its own.
Tris (Shailene Woodley) is coming of age in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. (The film does quite a good job of making Chicago look like it survived a horrific, if unspecified, war.) The remnants of the society have rebuilt themselves into a social structure consisting of five castes. We get an explanation of them but only three really figure in the plot. There is Abnegation, which Tris and her family are part of and which consists of people living simple lives devoted to serving others. There’s Dauntless, the strong defenders of the city and keepers of the peace, and there’s Erudite, who are the thinkers and planners. The story turns on Tris being tested to see which caste she should join but then freely being given the option to choose for herself.
Major spoiler without which discussing the film is impossible: she chooses Dauntless, and much of the film consists of her training, trying to prove herself worthy, and bonding with her trainer Four (Theo James). Based on the first book of a trilogy by Veronica Roth, the story focuses on two issues. First, Tris is a “divergent” which means she has skills and abilities that transcend any one caste, which is seen as disruptive to the social order. Second, the Erudites resent that the governance of the city is in the hands of Abnegation and is hatching a plot to take them down.
The film works because it engages in some creative world-building. Once you get all of the above it’s interesting to see how the culture of Dauntless is instilled in the “initiates” and how Tris navigates the various challenges she has to face. Woodley is an engaging heroine, and there’s a strong supporting cast led by Kate Winslet as the head of the Erudites, Maggie Q as a tattoo artist for Dauntless, and Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn as Tris’s parents.
That said, its roots in other YA successes are painfully obvious. The caste system is a variation of the various houses in “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson.” The young teenage girl rebel who has to keep proving herself and the oppressive society run by an elite is right out of “The Hunger Games.” And, in fact, all of this is a metaphor of high school with all these books and films focusing on adolescent angst. One of the most troubling things about “Divergent” is that it is a society where the bullying jocks are the good guys and the people with brains are the bad guys. The message seems to be: don’t worry about your grades, kids; learn to beat people up.
For those who aren’t over-analytical and cynical film critics, “Divergent” succeeds because it creates a world where we want to learn more about it and even at 139 minutes the film has the feel of a book where you keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. If Theo James’s Four is a bit of a cliché–dreamy hunk with a dark but redeemable secret–one can at least hope that his character gets developed as the story proceeds.
Here’s a bit more good news. While “Insurgent,” the next in the series, is already in the works, the final book – Allegiant – will reportedly not be split into two movies.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, MA.