I don’t get it. From time to time, a film will land at the box office and get derided by critics for reasons beyond me. Divergent is one of those films – with its strongly individualistic messages, appealing cast and refreshingly intelligent script, it is far and away the best of the post-Hunger Games YA crowd, and it even surpasses that franchise in some respects. So why did the critics savage it so? Perhaps it’s simply because they’re sick and tired of dystopia as a whole. Regardless, don’t let the negative buzz keep you away. Divergent is an immensely enjoyable watch, as well as a typically polished and atypically progressive one.
Based on the series by Veronica Roth, it takes place in a future Chicago, in which people are split up into factions based on their personality traits, including Erudite (intelligence), Amity (kindness), Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (honesty) and Dauntless (bravery). Our protagonist, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) is one of the unlucky few who displays “divergence,” not fitting neatly into one faction. This trait makes her a threat to the city’s perfectly controlled system – and to survive, she hides it, instead joining Dauntless and doing her best to lay low. Eventually, though, Tris realizes that her divergence may be the only thing that can save everything she holds dear from a villainous plot.
Outside of the neat faction idea, that overview makes Divergent sound predictable. And truthfully, it doesn’t stray too far from the formula in terms of its overarching plot. What makes Divergent distinctive, and what makes Divergent better than most YA adaptations of recent years, however, is Tris herself.
A protagonist of incredible inner strength, she’s played by Woodley with a tenacity on par with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss but also with a very relatable anxiety that her Hunger Games counterpart lacks. That Tris is allowed to show fear, and that Divergent is so much more centered on her overcoming her fears and emerging a better person than anything else, makes her a better character, in my opinion. Woodley plays her perfectly throughout the film, first as a timid teen edging down the path to adulthood, then as a young woman whose desire to gain independence quickly grows, and finally as a full-fledged woman who seizes her destiny and asserts her right to autonomy with an awesome ferocity. Tris emerges from Divergent as one of the strongest female protagonists in recent memory, as well as a towering role model for teen audiences.
Particularly commendable in Divergent is how its script informs Tris’ personal journey. She’s the one to choose Dauntless, and her resilience is the only thing that drives her forward. As Tris undergoes various physical and mental trainings with the other Dauntless initiates, she devotes herself to becoming a stronger person without help from others. She’s also completely in control of her own mind – and, critically, her body.
In one powder-keg of a scene, Tris is tasked with confronting her own worst fears and, in a simulation, finds herself in a bedroom with her crush, Dauntless instructor Four (Theo James). Her happiness turns to fear as he attempts to sexually assault her. Loudly, clearly, she fights him off – and as the simulation ends, her would-be attacker incapacitated, the audience watching her erupts in applause. You see, Divergent is truly important – it sends these messages, of self-possession and of a woman’s right to herself, to a teen audience too often bombarded with weak, romantically conflicted female role models dependent on men. It should be praised, not criticized, for following on the heels of The Hunger Games and sending better messages.
Outside of Tris, Divergent benefits from a strong crop of actors. James overcomes his model catalogue good looks to bring surprising emotional depth and complexity to Four, a badass character in his own right who refreshingly exists as more than just a love interest for Tris. Zoë Kravitz, as a fellow Dauntless initiate and friend to Tris, has some strong moments, as does Miles Teller, playing a slimy jerk who antagonizes Tris at every turn (it’s a real kick to see the Spectacular Now lovebirds at loggerheads here). Meanwhile, Jai Courtney is all gloating superiority as the nasty Dauntless leader Eric, and Kate Winslet does the best she can with the underwritten role of Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews. All of these characters are fun to watch – though, as I said previously, Divergent is at its best when its focus is squarely on Tris.
In terms of flow, Divergent unfolds with a quick pace that never loses sight of its characters, and though the final third is a little weighed down by set-up for the sequel, the only criticisms I had were borderline nit-picky. The action sequences are also stellar, directed with panache by Neil Burger. It’s not perfectly smooth around the edges, I’ll admit, with certain sections of the film filling up a disproportionate amount of time to others. But with characters and actors this good, there’s honestly little to complain about with Divergent.
The 1080p Blu-Ray transfer for Divergent is strong throughout, though the film does favor shadows and employs a less vibrant color palette than most recent blockbusters. Lots of grit and grime is found in most of Divergent‘s locales, from a seedy tattoo parlor to the underground training grounds at Dauntless HQ. Seeing as that favoring of colors like gray, brown and black was a stylistic choice (and not one without merits), one can’t fault the disc for it. The clarity and depth of image is superb throughout this Blu-Ray, with tiny details like strands of hair and threads on clothing constantly crystal clear. In scenes with more color, like those set in the offices of Erudite, where there are almost blinding whites everywhere, the disc also holds up incredibly well.
The audio track can be recommended without qualification. A 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, it’s the perfect accompaniment to an action-packed blockbuster like Divergent, bursting with noisy, immersive sound effects and a pounding house score (in addition to some stellar Ellie Goulding songs). Dialogue is crisp and always top-notch, while even the most busy battle sequences boast a terrific layering of sound, with gunfire coming across as particularly jarring and forceful.
In terms of special features, in addition to DVD, UltraViolet and iTunes copies of the film, the Divergent Blu-Ray includes:
- Audio Commentary with Director Neil Burger
- Audio Commentary with Producers Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick
- Bringing Divergent to Life (47:17)
- Faction Before Blood (14: 51)
- Deleted Scenes (4:17)
- Beating Heart Music Video (3:48)
- Marketing Gallery
Burger provides a generally engaging commentary track, though he doesn’t exactly provide the level of insight into making Divergent that one might expect. Instead, he spends a lot of time narrating scenes as they unfold while praising the participants, including seemingly every member of his cast and crew. The enthusiasm that Burger has for the property comes through, but it’s a shame it didn’t result in a more information-packed track.
The producers focus more on what was happening behind the scenes before cameras started rolling, with considerable time allotted to discussing the casting process and what it was like to watch various actors interact, especially given their backgrounds working together (Woodley romanced Ansel Elgort, who plays her brother in Divergent, in The Fault in Our Stars, while she also played the female lead alongside Teller, her on-screen rival here, in romance The Spectacular Now).
As far as making-of featurettes go, Divergent offers a deeply impressive one. There are lots of interviews with the cast and crew throughout the section, which is comprised of four press-kit featurettes. “Bringing Divergent to Life” also includes a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, which is very interesting to watch and includes looks at stunt work, choreography, what the visual effects actually looked like on set and how the filmmakers went about adapting Roth’s novel. I found the sections devoted to Woodley’s stunt double to be particularly interesting.
“Faction Before Blood” is much shorter, discussing the philosophy of Roth’s novel and the inner workings of the faction system. Cast members talk about their characters’ factions, and Roth makes an appearance too, discussing how the setting of Divergent works as a whole.
Deleted scenes offer some intriguing additions, including a scene involving a brutalized Dauntless initiate which really feels like it should be in the finished film. Others are less important but still worth a watch.
In conclusion, with its solid video transfer and stellar audio, in addition to an above-average set of special features, there’s little that should stand in the way of you picking up Divergent. Woodley is fantastic in the lead role, and the script works to turn Divergent into its own animal, a film more about a woman learning to empower herself rather than action or romance (though it provides plenty of both). Don’t dismiss it as just another contender for the YA throne – it’s thoughtful, thrilling and much more excitingly modern than its competitors.
Polished and progressive, Divergent is terrific YA entertainment that soars on the strengths of Shailene Woodley, surely one of the most unassuming yet appealing actresses to ever topline a film in this genre.