STARRING: Shailene Woodley, Theo
James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Maggie Q
2014, 139 Minutes, Directed by:
safe to say that if not for the success of
The Hunger Games, and
Twilight, then Divergent
would probably never have been written, much less turned into the latest bid to
adapt a YA book series into a movie franchise. Other series (e.g., Percy
Jackson, Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments) have
tried to make the leap and faltered. Let’s put that aside for a moment and
consider the film on its own.
Tris (Shailene Woodley) is
coming of age in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. (The film does quite a good job of
making Chicago look like it survived a horrific, if unspecified, war.) The
remnants of the society have rebuilt themselves into a social structure
consisting of five castes. We get an explanation of them but only three really
figure in the plot. There is Abnegation, which Tris and her family are part of
and which consists of people living simple lives devoted to serving others.
There’s Dauntless, the strong defenders of the city and keepers of the peace,
and there’s Erudite, who are the thinkers and planners. The story turns on Tris
being tested to see which caste she should join but then freely being given the
option to choose for herself.
Major spoiler without which
discussing the film is impossible: she chooses Dauntless, and much of the film
consists of her training, trying to prove herself worthy, and bonding with her
trainer Four (Theo James). Based on the first book of a trilogy by Veronica
Roth, the story focuses on two issues. First, Tris is a “divergent” which means
she has skills and abilities that transcend any one caste, which is seen as
disruptive to the social order. Second, the Erudites resent that the governance
of the city is in the hands of Abnegation and is hatching a plot to take them
"Its roots in other YA successes are painfully obvious . . ."
The film works because it
engages in some creative world building. Once you get all of the above it’s
interesting to see how the culture of Dauntless is instilled in the “initiates”
and how Tris navigates the various challenges she has to face. Woodley is an
engaging heroine, and there’s a strong supporting cast led by Kate Winslet as
the head of the Erudites, Maggie Q as a tattoo artist for Dauntless, and Ashley
Judd and Tony Goldwyn as Tris’s parents.
That said, its roots in other
YA successes are painfully obvious. The caste system is a variation of the
various houses in Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. The young
teenage girl rebel who has to keep proving herself and the oppressive society
run by an elite is right out of The Hunger Games. And, in fact, all of
this is a metaphor of high school with all these books and films focusing on
adolescent angst. One of the most troubling things about Divergent is
that it is a society where the bullying jocks are the good guys and the people
with brains are the bad guys. The message seems to be: don’t worry about your
grades, kids; learn to beat people up!
For those who aren’t
over-analytical and cynical film critics, Divergent succeeds because it creates
a world where we want to learn more about it and even at 139 minutes the film
has the feel of a book where you keep turning the pages to find out what happens
next. If Theo James’s Four is a bit of a cliché – dreamy hunk with a dark but
redeemable secret – one can at least hope that his character gets developed as
the story proceeds.
Here’s a bit more good news.
While Insurgent, the next in the series, is already in the works, the final book
– Allegiant – will reportedly NOT be split into two movies.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a
veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. He recently
released his first novel, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood
and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Watch trailer / clip: