A film review by Craig J. Koban March 28, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 143 mins.


Shailene Woodley as Beatrice Prior / Tris  /  Theo James as Tobias "Four" Eaton  /  Kate Winslet as Jeanine Matthews  /  Miles Teller as Peter  /  Jai Courtney as Eric  /  Zoë Kravitz as Christina  /  Ansel Elgort as Caleb Prior  /  Ray Stevenson as Marcus Eaton  /  Maggie Q as Tori  /  

Directed by Neil Burger  /  Written by Evan Daugherty  /  Based on the novel by Veronica Roth

If there is one thing that DIVERGENT unequivocally proves is that there’s nothing stopping a modern studio from attempting to cash in on a popular trend.  

Hugely cherished event films like THE HUNGER GAMES and TWILIGHT – based on young adult literature – have become such juggernaut box office successes over the years that copycats seem only inevitable.  DIVERGENT – based on a trilogy of novels by Veronica Roth – looks and feels like yet another in a long line-up of copycat efforts that hopes to become the next event film for young women to see.  Even though DIVERGENT doesn’t approach the soul-sucking banality of recent young adult novel adaptations like THE HOST (and TWILIGHT, for that matter), the film is so slavishly derivative right down to its very narrative and themes that it becomes a real chore to sit through.  It wants to stand proudly apart from the pack and on its own two feet, but never finds a means of doing so. 

That, and DIVERGENT is a poor man’s HUNGER GAMES right down to its premise and key ideas.  Both films involve a futuristic, post-apocalyptic America ravaged by war.  Both films feature pockets of civilization that try to pick up the pieces of what’s left to eek out an existence.  Both films have oppressive and totalitarian rulers that suppress individuality and freedom (granted, in DIVERGENT’s case, it’s done more subtly).  Both film involve a plucky, determined, headstrong, and brave female protagonist in her teens years that realizes that her main mission in life is to bring down the system.  And, of course, both films offer up a love interest for the heroine in the form of a hunky and brooding male anti-hero.  Nothing in DIVERGENT segregates itself apart from recent genre efforts.  Not a thing.  It’s almost paradoxical that a film like it – that’s about a desperate and courageous character that fights for finding her own inner soul and who she is – is so slavishly similar to other recent genre efforts.  



The film spends a considerable amount of time on introducing us to the particulars of its universe while, ironically enough, not really fully embellishing or explaining them, which leaves DIVERGENT feeling oddly talky and expositional without much payoff.  What you need to know is this: 100 years from now America has been ravaged by war, which has apparently left Chicago still standing, for the most part, but it's apparently been depopulated as a result of the unspecified conflicts.  An unfathomably large wall has been erected around the entire city to keep out threats and enemies from the outside, but as to what those threats and enemies are…the film never really explains.  Furthermore, it’s never really adequately established how a city with limited access to resources and manpower from the outside world managed to create and build such an impossibly large protective bubble around the city…but never mind. 

Society has been dutifully divided in factions based on personality types and abilities to keep peace and serenity in the city.  There’s the Erudite (intelligent people), Amity (kind), Candor (honest), Abnegation (selfless), and Dauntless (brave)….but then there’s “divergents,” or those that show a predilection to all of the aforementioned skill sets (they are considered a threat to the established order and are hunted down and exterminated).   Granted, since this society thinks that all these groups work together with relative harmony, I’m still scratching my head as to why a divergent (the best of all worlds) would be considered such a danger to the established order, but I digress.  Alas, the Erudite faction believes that they should be the rightful rulers and plan a coup to usurp the Abnegation from this esteemed position.  

The film’s main hero is Beatrice “Tris” Prior (the lovely and talented Shailene Woodley), who’s the daughter of two very established Abnegation leaders (played by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn).  When Tris is introduced she is to be tested to see which faction she would be most adept at, but when the test reveals that she’s, yup, divergent, this causes her to change her choice of faction and join up with Dauntless.  From here, she is taken away to their top secret, underground facility, where she is rigorously trained by Four (Theo James) and Eric (Jai Courtney), the latter who teaches his pupils with a sadistic relish.  Rather predictably, Four and Tris fall for each other during her exhaustive training, all while she tries to hide her divergent nature from everyone, especially the Erudite leader, Jeanine Matthews (a decent, but underused Kate Winslet), whom may or may not have something to so with the violent Erudite-lead revolution to come. 

I’ve spent ample time describing the plot to DIVERGENT because, frankly, so does the film.  The opening half of the film is arguably its weakest, as it tries, as it may, to establish the minutiae of its post-war-torn Chicago, which not only becomes very fatiguing early on, but it also leaves us asking far too many questions about this world.  When the film attempts to hammer out the rules of its universe, it monotonously serves up regurgitated themes that we’ve seen countless times before in far better sci-fi genre films (hell, DIVERGENT even deals out a fairly tacked on subplot involving chemical induced mind-control that mournfully feels like a late-stage plot addition).  It’s not that DIVERGENT doesn’t have things to say; it’s real problem is that it finds no meaningfully interesting or compelling way of saying them, which leaves the film feeling more empty and flat than it otherwise should have been.  If your mythology lacks intrigue and freshness from the get-go, then you know you’re in trouble. 

DIVERGENT is not a completely wasted effort.  The film has a decent aesthetic look and director Neil Burger (LIMITLESS and THE ILLUSIONIST) evokes in the skylines of a Chicago of tomorrow a cold, detached, and oppressive place that looks simultaneously familiar, but wholly foreign.  Then there is star Shailene Woodley, a young actress that, for my money, gave two of the most natural and authentically rendered performances of the last few year’s in THE DESCENDANTS and last year’s sublime THE SPECTACULAR NOW.  She initially does not have the look and feel of an action hero, per se, the same way that Jennifer Lawrence exudes in THE HUNGER GAMES, but Woodley dramatically grounds DIVERGENT and maintains our attention in ways that few actresses could.  She provides an emotional access point for the film and gives a thanklessly lived-in performance that’s arguably better than the inherent material she’s been given.  Woodley, in short, keeps the film from imploding on itself. 

Again, though, all of the goodwill provided from its main star here is not enough to help overcome DIVERGENT’s glaring and pathetically obvious attempts to cash-in on the tidal wave of success that THE HUNGER GAMES has ushered in.  At nearly two and a half hours in length, DIVERGENT feels more tediously exhausting than it feels exhilarating and gripping, which is not assisted by the fact that its criminally unoriginal and formulaic at its very core.  The film’s message about doing anything possible to achieve individualism and freedom while rebelliously absconding away from societal laws seems almost lost in the fact that its story itself borrows so heavily from films that preceded it.  It should be noted that I disliked the initial HUNGER GAMES entry, but truly admired its far superior sequel.  Here’s hoping that a possible DIVERGENT follow-up will more satisfactorily embellish and develop its world and characters to its fullest.  Alas, a sequel to this weak introductory entry will certainly have its work cut out for it.  


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