Young Adult Adaptation "Divergent" Glances Target

“Divergent,” based on the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, is a picture held back by its own wild-eyed visions of a franchise in waiting. It hurtles toward the promise of dollar signs in the eyes of young moviegoers without ever questioning or justifying its own existence. The film exists because of a perceived demand for movies based on young adult novels, and the novel exists because today’s young adults are ostensibly book crazy. Not for the classics, or for idiosyncratic gems lost in the shuffle, but for recycled dystopian fables of individualism and bravery and yada, yada, yada.

As if “The Hunger Games” and its ilk didn’t hang heavily enough over Roth’s novel, director Neil Burger (“Limitless”) has doused “Divergent” in a similarly generic but even less distinct visual style, resulting in a would-be blockbuster that’s missing the flashiness inherent in these types of films. But, in the face of derivative source material bursting with plot holes and decidedly mechanical execution, the pic’s charismatic cast turns the skeletal narrative into something functional, making for a surprisingly pleasant ride.

Set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, the film depicts a society in which survivors have been separated into factions based on personality types. These factions consist of Erudite (intelligent), Dauntless (brave), Abegnation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), and Candor (honest). It’s a silly, overly simplistic framing device, but it provides for immediate drama as teenager Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) is faced with the prospect of leaving her family for a different faction. It’s Choosing Day, and Tris and her peers – including her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort) – have to make the life-altering – and permanent – decision as to where they best fit in.

Tris’ heart isn’t with her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) or their faction, but with the unruly warriors of Dauntless. However, upon learning that she harbors traits of all five factions – a malady known as divergence – she’s left with no choice but to forge her way through Dauntless training as to not be cast out of society altogether. Divergents are seen as threats to authority, while those who don’t qualify for a faction are made factionless transients. Thus begins the world’s longest training sequence, one that comprises the majority of the film’s 140-minute running time.

Theo James co-stars as Four, Tris’ mysterious, brooding Dauntless instructor, while Woodley’s “Spectacular Now” co-star Miles Teller supports as Peter, the mean-spirited nemesis to Tris’ wide-eyed innocent. Zoe Kravitz particularly delights as Christina, Tris’ whipsmart best friend and fellow initiate, while Kate Winslet practically snarls as Jeanine, the malicious leader of Erudite. Save James, whose acting talents don’t match his good looks, the main players give plenty of life to their thinly drawn characters, with Woodley’s natural charm leaving the largest imprint.

The lack of narrative thrust is a problem, but not a deal breaker. As the story moseys along without any sense of urgency, the cast proves up to the task of keeping things loose and engaging. More so, in the context of franchise building – a sequel is imminent – the pic’s shortage of drama is to be expected. We know that our heroes will make it out just fine, so why pretend as if they’re in mortal danger? The unhurried pacing is nearly refreshing, allowing each actor to build his or her character from the ground up rather than insisting viewers be intimately familiar with the novel.

The scarcity of action scenes is peculiar – Aussie actor Jai Courtney is underused as a malevolent Dauntless instructor and potential instigator of said action. More regrettably, a few narrative quirks are nothing short of laughable – see Dauntless running energetically through the streets like a Broadway troupe from hell. In a work so streamlined, it’s disappointing that they don’t break out into song. But for every moment that misfires, there’s a scene like Tris’ precarious trip through a battered Chicago skyline via zip-line that nails its mark, reminding us why we flock to escapist fare in the first place.

While “Divergent” is thematically amateurish and visually unremarkable, its unenviable quest to be everything to everyone – such is the burden of the modern day blockbuster – imbues it with just enough personality to endear it to less demanding audiences. It’s unlikely to change any lives, but its workmanlike manner ultimately overshadows the multitude of things working against it. And that’s reason enough to be satisfied – for fans of the novel and novices alike.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: March 21, 2014
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Neil Burger
Screenwriter: Vanessa Taylor, Evan Daugherty
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality)