Written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Neil Burger
The price of movie stardom in the 21st century for young women involves headlining a big-budget young-adult-novel adaptation; so now, it’s time for Shailene Woodley to prove her mettle against peers like Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence. With her past work in films like The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, it’s not at all surprising that she is the best part of her version of Twilight or The Hunger Games, a film called Divergent. Perhaps it’s fitting that Divergent feels like something of a stew made up of ingredients of past YA fantasy/sci-fi novels, but outside of Woodley’s typically emotionally charged performance, there’s not much here that’s particularly memorable.
Based on the Veronica Roth novel, Divergent takes place in a futuristic Chicago after a massive war that shook up the remainder of humanity. Now, people live in five factions: Dauntless, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Abnegation. As the film opens, it’s time for Beatrice Prior (Woodley) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) to both take a test placing them in a specific faction as well as to make their final choice (which is allowed to be a different result from that of the test). Beatrice finds out, to her surprise, that she tests as Divergent—she fits into multiple categories, not just one. This is, unfortunately, a big red flag to the powers that be, who are afraid of any multidimensional characters floating about. Beatrice attempts to hide this fact, which becomes more challenging when she chooses to be placed among the ultra-brave Dauntless group and has to prove that she belongs with her tougher, more physically fit peers.
There is, of course, a greater threat to the final remnants of humanity than Beatrice (who rechristens herself Tris when she arrives with the Dauntless group) figuring out what group she best fits into: the leader of the Erudite group (Kate Winslet) has plans to overtake the government and wipe out the Abnegation faction so she can control everyone. Unfortunately, the majority of Divergent focuses solely on Tris’ growth within Dauntless and her increasing attraction to her trainer (Theo James), neither of which are nearly as compelling as they should be. Divergent runs just about 140 minutes, and most of the first 2 hours is dedicated to Tris’ journey as a person before veering into a straightforward action narrative about rebelling against the totalitarian state and bringing it down from the inside. The latter section would work a great deal better if the adaptation, by screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, didn’t skimp on the world-building. (Though the first 20 or so minutes, especially, is exposition-heavy, and artlessly so.)
Woodley has proven in more prestigious, less mainstream roles, that she has the chops to follow in the footsteps of Lawrence or Stewart, and acquits herself nicely enough here. Tris, as a character, isn’t terribly interesting, but Woodley does her damnedest to reverse that fact. She only gets one truly emotional moment of any serious weight or heft, near the beginning of the third act, but it’s easily the most memorable scene of the film, specifically because of how fiercely the young actress throws herself into the melodrama. Of the rest of the cast, not many stand out, less because they’re untalented and more because they’re all almost entirely written to be one-dimensional. (Arguably, this is intentional, as the ideal person in this dystopia is defined by only one trait. That doesn’t lead to a promising result for the ensemble, however.) Winslet, in far less of the film than should be the case, is fairly icy as the Erudite leader but barely raises the needle in her handful of sequences. Also, there’s, admittedly, a perverse enjoyment in watching Miles Teller here, as a Draco Malfoy-esque Dauntless member who takes specific delight in mocking Tris whenever he can. Anyone who saw him and Woodley ping-pong off each other in last year’s The Spectacular Now may snicker at their now-acrid moments.
Divergent is merely the latest in a long line of young-adult adaptations, coming after such mammoth hits as Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games, as well as flops like last year’s The Host. Director Neil Burger hasn’t done much to separate this film visually from the pack, and the story is a mélange of familiar tropes, themes, and concepts that the general hook isn’t quite enough to be memorable. Divergent has but one secret weapon, a lead actress who’s been waiting to break out into full-blown stardom for the past couple years. We’re quickly approaching the moment when Shailene Woodley turns into as close there is to an old-fashioned movie star, if that moment hasn’t already begun. She can comfortably ease back now, knowing that she’s showed her chops in a would-be blockbuster. Would that it was content to be more than just adequate.
— Josh Spiegel