A lot hinges on the success of Neil Burger’s dystopian thriller Divergent, based on Veronica Roth’s young adult page-turner. Since the Twilight series ended and The Hunger Games quadrology started, teen-aimed adaptations of novels with fantastical or supernatural themes – among them, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and Beautiful Creatures – have been a timid bunch that made an even more tepid total at the box office.
What Divergent has to its advantage is a source text with a vividly realized future and a fascinating allegory about the perils and difficulties of leaving home and discovering one’s place in the world. Roth’s first in a trilogy of novels is filled with big emotions and bigger action set-pieces that seem well suited for the big screen. No pressure on the Limitless director to deliver a film that can single-handedly revive an industry searching for the next teen franchise.
Unfortunately, Burger does not quite pull it off. He lacks the imagination to invest viewers who are not attuned to the intricacies of Roth’s dystopian universe and also does not know how to stun the audience with some of the bleaker, more nightmarish qualities of her novel. For a story about a young woman’s quest to find an autonomous path and stray from the conventions and control of the world she lives in, this film adaptation feels very status quo. It may be diverting and contains some strong performances from a young ensemble, but Divergent is plodding, derivative and bound to perplex those unfamiliar with the source material.
Divergent takes place in Chicago many years from now after a war tore apart the foundations of the city. To recover, the city divided its citizens up into five colour-coded factions to keep the peace: Abnegation (for the selfless), Amity (for the peaceful), Candor (for the honest), Dauntless (for the brave) and Erudite (for the intelligent).
16-year-old Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) is the daughter of public servants in Abnegation who are responsible for running the inter-faction government. She awaits a Choosing ceremony, when Tris will decide the faction where she will spend the rest of her life. Most citizens decide to stay with the faction where they grew up, as their upbringing usually nurtures the personality type of their current home. However, when Tris takes a test to find out her personality before the ceremony, the results indicate that she can belong to three factions: Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite. The test administrator, Tori (Maggie Q), tells Tris to keep this multi-faceted identity – her divergence – a secret.
Tris decides to abandon her faction for Dauntless at the Choosing ceremony, stunning her parents Natalie (Ashley Judd) and Andrew (Tony Goldwyn). However, Tris is not a confirmed member of Dauntless until she can prove she has the muscle and stamina to be a fearless leader. In the Dauntless boot camp-like training, each initiate gets a rank on a scoreboard at the end of every day, with the upper ranks ultimately selected to join Dauntless and the lower echelon banished into faction-less squander. Thus, she has to show off her might in mano-a-mano brawls and team-building exercises with the other recruits, including the snide Peter (Miles Teller) and loyal friend Christina (Zoë Kravitz).
At the helm of Tris’s training is the smug, controlling Eric (Jai Courtney) and the tough, although more tender Four (Theo James), who sees something unique in the young initiate. Tris knows that what attracts Four to her is her divergent identity, which she tries to conceal. If revealed, Tris could see a terrible fate as members in the upper echelon of Chicago, including the vindictive Jeanine (Kate Winslet, who deserves better), plan to rid society of these liberated personality types.
As our virtuous heroine, Woodley is a very appealing choice to play Tris. Initially just an anxious girl with an exasperated voice, the actress burrows from this plainness into a determined girl, filled of a giddy, nervous energy, who is alert to the suspicious situations around Chicago that threaten her life. Divergent works best when it explores Tris’s changing personality as she leaves home and tries to adapt to a new way of life.
Tris learned from her humble family life to avert her eyes from her reflection in the mirror and reject vanity, yet she has to build the confidence to commit to sculpting a brawny physique and perform fearless acts without hesitation. In one scene, she burns her bland, gray Abnegation clothes for a sleek black wardrobe that fits a Dauntless member. As a coming-of-age allegory, Divergent is effective and should resonate with young adults who can relate to the protagonist’s struggles and newfound liberty as she directs a new course for her life.
Meanwhile, Theo James is a good find as the charismatic, smoldering, inked up Four, who has his own secrets that do not include a crush on Tris. However, despite a tenderness as a romantic lead, his range as an actor is questionable, especially when playing against more experienced young actors like Woodley and Courtney.
Besides Woodley’s strong turn, Divergent could have benefitted from a more dauntless filmmaker. Roth’s novel was full of stunning big screen potential for visual sprawl of a decaying future Chicago and haunting hallucination sequences. At Tris’s initial pre-Choosing ceremony test and during later trials in her stay in Dauntless, she takes a serum that puts her mind in a trance so that simulations can explore her personality and exploit her greatest fears. Burger refrains from delivering these harrowing moments of trauma in a way that is tense or terrifying. Meanwhile, the decrepit urban space in the film looks too reliant on digital enhancement.
With the first Harry Potter, director Chris Columbus adorned the entrance into a magical world with whimsy and stunningly realized flights of visual fancy. With The Hunger Games, Gary Roth filmed it with a pseudo-documentary realism to make a pointed commentary about the commonalities between the film’s dystopian reality and our current geopolitical state. But with this first entry in a planned trilogy, Burger only occasionally excites the viewer in the structure of the complex society and how the power struggles work within it. Furthermore, the action sequences range from by-the-book one-on-one combat to choppier shootouts in the climactic final third. The film’s soundtrack, full of Ellie Goulding tunes that blare hackneyed song lyrics during especially serious moments, does not help things, either.
Like Roth’s novel, Burger and screenwriters Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones) have not yet finessed how to pace rising action. The adaptation, as well as the source work, shoots from a padded middle section into a rushed final act that barrels heavy action, exposition and explosive shifts in character at the audience so quickly that it is hard to keep up. Two tragic character fates, in particular, feel unsatisfying emotionally due to their brief screen time.
Ultimately, one leaves the cinema more relieved from exhaustion than interested to know what will happen in Insurgent, the sequel due in cinemas a year from Divergent’s release – given the studio likes the box office totals. However, with young adult fantasy fatigue already setting in, this film may be too tame to be the genre saviour that the industry is looking for. It is quite disappointing that a movie about a society that renders its citizens into categories feels so uninspired and audience-set. Divergent is intriguing due to a handful of good performances from a young ensemble, but not the invigorating entertainment that it yearns to be.