Get out the cookie cutter, it's time for another 'tween' franchise
Divergent might be the first ‘young adult’ adaptation that actually feels like it was written by a young adult.To be honest that’s not far from the truth because the source novel was published in 2011 when its author - Veronica Roth - was only 23. Although she started writing Divergent earlier than that, whilst studying creative writing at university. Perhaps if she’d spent more time in class and less time fine tuning her magnum opus, Divergent could have been better. Sadly, as it is, the story feels like a collection of obvious influences and even more obvious morals and themes, all wrapped up in a by-the-numbers plot. Clearly actual creativity wasn't a big part of the 'creative writing' syllabus at Northwestern University.
So what we get is a story set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, which is now surrounded by a giant wall to keep out whatever is lurking in the wasteland beyond. Within this wall, society is broken down into five distinct factions based upon a person’s disposition - Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity and Candor. By adhering to these factions, their society believes it can avoid making the same mistakes again. The film starts with our sixteen-year-old heroine - Beatrice Prior - going for her test to determine which of the five factions she will join. Needless to say, all does not go as expected and so the plot is set in motion.
In fairness to Northwestern University, whilst their creative writing course might not be so big on creativity, it certainly teaches its students how to get their work noticed. Roth’s story was optioned by Hollywood before it was even published, as the studios searched around for more young adult franchises in the wake of the phenomenal success of Twilight. Divergent was produced by Summit and Lionsgate, who have already hit gold with their film adaptations of the Twilight and Hunger Games books respectively, but despite some strong box office numbers in America, it seems unlikely that this latest attempt at a franchise will be as popular. Whilst The Hunger Games, in particular, might not be great literature, it at least raises some interesting ideas and presents a social structure that appears well thought out.
The real problem with Divergent is that everything just seems so obvious, with a generic plot that’s full of details specifically chosen because teenagers will think they’re ‘cool.’ There's no attempt to explain what caused the apocalypse, what lies beyond the wall or whether there are any other cities left except Chicago. The story's setting appears to be nothing more than window dressing, whilst other elements are so heavy-handed they may as well have neon signs above them. Take the factions for example, there’s Abnegation who are selfless and thus run the government; Amity who are peaceful and do all the farming; Candor who always tell the truth and so run the legal system; Dauntless who are brave and make up the police and the army; and Erudite who are intelligent and responsible for all science.
Divergent looks and sounds like it was written by a teenager... Oh wait, it was.
Aside from proving that Veronica Roth owns a dictionary, the concept of the factions just feels like the cliques that populate American high schools. It certainly wouldn’t work as any form of social structure and it ultimately reminds the viewer of the various houses in Harry Potter. There’s even a test that’s similar to the sorting hat and once you’ve chosen your faction, you're committed to it for life or face the horror of being 'factionless'. All the factions dress like they’ve raided Banana Republic and Erudite might as well be called Slytherin given the way they behave. Speaking of which, the faction that the heroine joins is Dauntless, who run around and shout a lot, jump off trains, sport tattoos and wear black. We’re supposed to think they’re cool but they just act like the kind of extreme sports enthusiasts that everyone secretly hates.
Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice Prior who, as it transpires when she takes her test, is 'divergent' - that is she doesn't belong to one specific faction and, in fact, has traits relating to all five. Quite why being 'divergent' is so bad or why thinking independently will topple the system is never really explained but Beatrice is told by her examiner, played by Maggie Q, to keep this fact to herself and just choose the faction she wants to join. Naturally she chooses the cool kids, changes her name to Tris and starts hopping on and off trains with her new buddies in Dauntless before meeting one of her instructors, the hunky Four (Theo James). She then begins her training in Dauntless, with those who fail to meet the grade being thrown out to become factionless; although the system of scoring trainees seems to be rather arbitrary.
Shailene Woodley does the best she can with the role and although she's clearly a rising star, it's doubtful the part of Tris will have as big an impact on her career as playing Katniss Everdeen has for Jennifer Lawrence. Mainly because the role of Tris just isn't as good but at least Woodley and co-star Theo James have decent chemistry and we're spared yet another love triangle. The supporting cast is impressive, with Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd playing Tris’s parents and Ray Stevenson portraying another senior member of the Abnegation faction. Heading up the Erudite faction is Kate Winslet, in her first role as a villain but unfortunately she’s clearly pregnant in certain scenes and no matter how hard they try to hide that fact, it detracts from any menace she might have brought to the part. The Dauntless faction is headed up by Mekhi Phifer, with Jai Courtney playing another trainer, the rather unpleasant Eric.
The film is directed by Neil Burger who previously helmed the pseudo-documentary Interview with the Assassin, the magician-themed period drama The Illusionist and, most recently, the Bradley Cooper thriller Limitless. Like the cast, Burger does the best he can with the material at hand and certainly the sequences that take place in the drug-induced fear simulations show signs of some imagination. However, he ultimately fails to truly engage the viewer, whilst his direction lacks any real style of its own, making the film feel even more generic than the already limited source material. Much like the direction and the book, the production values, music and effects are perfunctory without ever being exceptional. Whilst there isn't much the screenwriters could do about the original novel, their limp script does little to help matters with a series of uninspired set pieces, characters that you don't really care about and a lot of boring exposition.
You're left with the sense that the entire film is a 2 hour prologue for something more interesting.
In fact, at times the whole film feels like one long exposition scene and given that Divergent clocks in at two hours and twenty minutes, you feel that the story could have got going much quicker. By the time the credits roll you're left with the sense that the entire film is an extended prologue for a far more interesting second act. That's certainly what Summit and Lionsgate hope and they're already in production on the second book in the series, Insurgent, with a third film being readied for 2016. At least for the moment the producers have no plans to split the final book, Allegient, into two movies, so we should be thankful for small mercies. Ultimately if you're a teenager then you may well think Divergent is fantastic but for those of you with more mature tastes, the best approach is to diverge from this film at your earliest opportunity.
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