Director: Neil Burger
Written by: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor, based on the novel by Veronica Roth
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet
Runtime: 139 mins
After Harry Potter blew up, everyone started writing proper adventure novels for young people. As Harry Potter grew up, these novels got more mature, evolving into young-adult fantasy fiction. And when The Hunger Games, one of these novels, blew up, everyone started writing dark adventure novels for young adults, most of them also dipping their toes into the cesspool of icky Twilight romance at the same time. And of course, there has to be a film adaptation for each one. Most of which are more vapid, shameless attempts at grabbing some teen-date money from hormonal adolescents than works of art or any sort of creative craft.
So we have Divergent. It comes with a package of less-than-lofty expectations, being a third-generation product of an increasingly diluted world of young adult fantasy fiction. To be honest, a healthy dose of apprehension before seeing the film can’t be too surprising when you look at the scorched earth of pretenders among the precious few great entries of the genre.
The plot: “In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.” (IMDb.com)
And it doesn’t start well. Oh no. Not at all. We’re treated to a banal voice-over narration from Shailene Woodley’s Tris, explaining Things We Need To Know About The World So We Won’t Have To Think About It Or Anything and recounting her problems, which in all add up to being any given teenager. She doesn’t fit in. Nobody understands her. She’s different from, like, everyone. And even though her family is like totally great, she feels there just has to be so much more out there, you know?
Society, in this case a walled-off post-apocalyptic Chicago, is divided into five factions, and where every teenager has to pick their faction as a rite of passage. They undergo a test beforehand to analyse where they fit in, but lo and behold! Tris doesn’t fit into any faction! Maybe she really is special and shiny and not just experiencing what every teen feels at some point, and that of course is a big no-no in this world run by Kate Cold Hard Bitch Winslet.
Sorry. I’m really trying not to be sarcastic. Apologies.
Tris joins the Dauntless, the fearless daredevils that take care of policing and keeping everyone else safe, and through the rigorous training program, which takes up the bulk of the running time, we get to know that not everything is as it seems in this world. Shocker. I know.
Then something happens. No, not in the plot. That goes pretty much as you can already visualise from this, barring a couple of minor details in the third act. No. Against all odds, Divergent becomes interesting.
Through the pure gusto of Shailene Woodley’s performance, the dangerously stereotypical Tris becomes a very specific character, one who drives the otherwise predictable proceedings to a really engaging journey. The kinda-but-not-really-but-still love interest Four, a Dauntless trainer with a chip on his shoulder also becomes interesting, not through charming good looks, but through a surprisingly well-handled back story, which becomes much more than a simple plot device. Thankfully.
Furthermore, Tris has to suffer real sacrifices, with no cop-outs (or so it doesn’t seem) or dei ex machina after they happen. These sacrifices make you sit up and actually engage in the third act, without whom it would fall considerably flatter than it does. In this regard, Divergent has taken a page out The Hunger Games’ book, and a good one at that.
The action is well handled by everyone, and stays grounded in reality. People get bruised and bones get broken, and there are even surprisingly unflinching fight sequences at times, even if the bloodletting is toned down considerably. Because ratings and box office and stuff.
The effects are also toned down to a manageable amount for a modest budget, although a thrilling zipwire sequence feels thrilling, if a bit tacked on. The main problem here is that, like in so many films of this ilk, everything is too clean and shiny. It prevents us from getting engrossed in the dystopian part of the world, and that’s a shame, because there is some real potential here.
The supporting characters are hit-and-miss, with Jai Courtney’s Eric a surprisingly fun antagonist, but Zoe Kravitz’s Christina misfires for the most part. She’s supposed to be the spunky sidekick, but there isn’t much to work with, so she ends up lost in Genericland.
Kate Winslet plays a gnarly villain for the first time, and elevates her character through a completely generic setup and dialogue bordering on the absurdly bad through her being one of the world’s greatest actresses. And Divergent does have one thing no other film in history has: Academy Award Winner Kate Winslet Caught Monologuing. And that’s a whole star’s worth, people.
Oh, and let’s hope the inevitable sequel does something to actually address that Godzilla-proof wall surrounding the city, by the way.
Divergent is a mostly generic young-adult fantasy action film that features Kate Winslet’s worst-written character, but also a surprisingly engaging protagonist story, performed with gusto by the immensely promising Shailene Woodley. It’s not The Hunger Games quality by any stretch of the imagination, but it will be a good Sunday Netflix viewing.
Best quote: “Why does everyone keep saying that?”