At first glance, the title of DIVERGENT would seem rather ironic. After all, another screen adaptation of a best-selling, young adult-targeted, female-driven dystopian sci-fi action-adventure novel trilogy? Add in the modus operandi of casting a up-and-coming critical darling from the indie film world (here, Shailene Woodley) in the lead and surrounding her with respected veteran actors (here, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, among others) in the supporting roles, and the filmmakers appear to be too hungrily aping other games. But director Neil Burger quickly establishes a most distinctive vibe for this cinematic take on Veronica Roth’s novel by making things at once simpler and more difficult. Despite being set in the revitalized remains of a post-apocalyptic Chicago, all the flashy digital bells and whistles one would equate with such a scenario are kept at a startling minimum–but such a back-to-basics approach thus forces one to pay attention to the actual substance of the story and characters.
Luckily for Burger, however derivative it may be of other works in the genre both past and present, Roth, by way of screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, builds a dense and fascinating world and mythology. The five-faction system adopted to maintain the now-longtime post-war peace forces young people of a certain age to choose a faction with which they will live with and for the rest of their lives. Born into the selfless and more than a little suffocating existence of the ruling faction of Abnegation, one Beatrice Prior (Woodley) rechristens herself as Tris, one of the bold and adventuresome Dauntless faction. But tests reveal that her true nature cannot be classified in one of the defined factions, but rather the most feared–and hunted–minority of “Divergent,” where one exhibits equal aptitude for multiple faction characteristics. With shady schemes brewing to pit the factions at war and overthrow the government, Divergents are in even more danger than usual–but they also may be the one thing able to thwart the conspiracies and maintain the peace.
That’s a lot of plot, but Burger, Daugherty, and Taylor not only make the mythology quite understandable but emotionally accessible–the latter largely owing to that grounded, aggressively real world approach Burger adopts. With all the fanciful intrigue playing out in recognizably non-green-screen settings, it’s all the more easy to immerse and, crucially, invest in the proceedings, with the actors then taking it over the top. Woodley is an instantly likable and rootable heroine, making Tris’s journey to find her strength and identity as a unique individual a relatable and affecting one. If her romance with Dauntless senior Four (Theo James) is a bit of a young adult genre-mandated contrivance, the unforced rapport between Woodley and James as both lovers and equally matched contemporaries goes a long way. The supporting cast, from the young such as Zoe Kravitz and Woodley’s THE SPECTACULAR NOW co-star Miles Teller (as Tris’s best friend and primary tormentor in Dauntless, respectively) to the older such as Judd (as Tris’s mother) and Winslet (as the icy leader of the brainy Erudite faction), all give as good as they get; they all make good use of their individual moments to shine while never losing sight of their greater function to support and not overshadow the bigger picture. Like many of its zeitgeist genre ilk, DIVERGENT is quite blatantly but one chapter of a longer series, but if it lacks conclusive, stand-alone resolution, it does make one eager to see where the story goes from here. Grade: B
By Michael DeQuina
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