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DIVERGENT (2014) review

March 22, 2014

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written by: Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor 

produced by: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher and Pouya Shabazian

directed by: Neil Burger

rating: PG-13 (intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality

runtime: 139 min.

U.S. release date: March 21, 2014

 

Based on the best-selling trilogy from Veronica Roth, “Divergent” is the latest addition to the YA movie adaptations. Studios are aware of the potential for success these books offer, as they cater to established fans and aim to attract a predominately young audience. While the dystopian near-future sci-fi premise shows promise, it unfortunately delivers a bland and derivative movie on many levels. It’s a movie that will unlikely be accepted by viewers unfamiliar with the source material and will predictably be embraced by those who are.

And most likely, those who are will scoff at the movie’s detractors, will claim “well, you haven’t read the book, so….” in defense of “Divergent”. I speak from experience.  To those fervent fans I usually reply with, “No, I haven’t read the books, but I saw this movie.”

A movie should not require a built-in audience as a prerequisite for enjoyment. It stands on its own. As a comic book fan, I know what it’s like to be lost in the excitement of your beloved characters and stories coming to life on the big-screen. I also know what it’s like to be severely disappointed in how they are adapted, as well.

“Divergent” takes place in a future Chicago. So right there, you have my interest. For once, it’s not New York or L.A. getting the post-apocalyptic treatment, but rather my hometown. Expectedly, this Windy City looks quite different here. It’s unclear why or how Lake Michigan and the Chicago River have both dried up to mere swampland. There’s a reference to a war that took place one hundred years ago, but no explanation of what it was about, who fought in it or what the outcome was.

One result of that mysterious war, was the erection of an enormous man-made wall off the shore of the city. It’s a mystery what this wall is keeping out, but inside we’re introduced compartmentalized society where people are grouped into factions based on their personality traits.

 

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There are five factions to choose from (or that choose you, possibly): Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (kindness/peacefulness), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty) and Dauntless (fearless bravery). Every faction has their purposed function – Erudite handles science and technology while Abnegation runs the government due to their disposition for serving the public. It’s “explained” that Amity are some kind of farming hippies and Candor “speak their mind”. Talk about generalizations. Then there are the soldiers of Dauntless, who must run, jump and climb wherever they go – they cannot walk anywhere. I don’t know why. They immerse themselves in combat training and convey a convincing military presence, but it’s unclear who/what they are ready to defend or who/what they are prepared to fend off. Then there are those called the Faction-less, who either did not choose or were banished from a faction. They’re the homeless of the population, living off the streets while receiving some charity from Abnegation, led by Marcus Eaton (Ray Stevenson, ironically a one-time Punisher).

Everyone has to choose their faction when they turn sixteen. It’s a big event called Choosing Day (creative, I know), where everyone lines up as if they’re choosing college classes or careers. Actually, that analogy isn’t that far off. To help them decide (and to build a Big Brother database for the Erudites) the teens are given a test to determine where they would fit in best – it’s like a hi-tech What Color is My Parachute? exam. When someone’s test results reveal an aptitude for more than one faction, they are considered Divergent. This is a huge no-no, like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, that person will not fit in one particular function. Or maybe – gasp – they are individuals with more than just one-dimension.

Born and raised in an Abnegation family, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) must partake in Choosing Day, along with her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort). Her parents, Natalie (Ashley Judd) and Andrew (Tony Goldwyn), are council members and vocalize support for whatever faction their children select with an understandable amount of trepidation. Beatrice tests as Divergent and is told by Tori (Maggie Q), the one who performs the test, to keep the results to her self, for life-and-death reasons unknown. When it comes time to choose, Beatrice chooses Dauntless and Caleb becomes an Erudite, both rejecting their family.

Changing her name to “Tris”, Beatrice is swept off on a train to a dilapidated South Side where her initiation and training will begin. She befriends other newbies, like Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and steers clear of antagonist, Peter (Miles Teller), while attracting the attention of Dauntless leader, Four (Theo James) and the patronizing eye of cocky instructor, Eric (Jai Courtney). The training Beatrice and her new friends endure is intense, brutal and cruel, involving various forms of combat and psychological simulations of fear.

All of this is overseen by Max (Mekhi Phifer) of Dauntless, who keeps Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), a well-spoken Erudite leader up to date with training. Obsessed with eliminating human nature, or all Divergents. Jeanine is secretly developing a way to control the Dauntless and topple Abnegation. Just as Beatrice is finding her place in her ruthless faction and love develops with Four, she learns of the plan for Dauntless and becomes swept up in a revolution that will disrupt this categorized society.

 

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Primarily known for two of his previous films, “Limitless” and “The Illusionist”, director Neil Burger has the daunting task of making a movie out of a story that wants to be epic in scope, tone and themes. He’s commendably assisted in important areas like visual effects, production and costume design, as well as a propulsive yet mostly unnecessarily manipulative soundtrack by Junkie XL, but it’s the screenplay and maybe even the limitations of a required PG-13 rating with handicap Burger. His movie is overlong, filled with limp action and dull intensity.

Not having read any of the books, I’m unconvinced that the blame for the movie’s confusing and nonsensical storyline should be given to co-writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor. I had a hard time believing these factions could actually function. Is Candor the only place for honesty? Why would selflessness be compartmentalized to Abnegation? It seems like Divergents, who come across as normal, multi-faceted individuals, would become the norm. If I lived in this future Chicago, I’d definitely be at home living off the grid in Lower Wacker. It seemed like all of the planning went into the production and design for “Divergent”, leaving us with an unconvincing world with a concept filled with flaws.

One major problem I had with “Divergent” was connecting with Beatrice. Other than showing occasional signs of empathy and compassion, she’s kind of a blank slate. I suppose that’s not too foreign for a teen trying to figure herself out, but her overall personality is hardly lead character material. Maybe Beatrice is supposed to be  average and common so that anyone can find themselves in her and grow closer to her as she discovers herself. But it doesn’t feel like we ever really get to know her. We never learn why she chose Dauntless or completely believe that this directionless soul could become a gun-toting, knife-throwing soldier in a short amount of time. Ultimately, Beatrice’s character arch is unconvincing.

That’s not Woodley’s fault. In films like “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now”, the young actress has shown that she’s got a fine natural quality about her. In this case, Beatrice just isn’t a very unique character that earns and holds our interest. Woodley does the best with what she has and the rest of the cast follow in her steps. Some of them, though, like Jai Courtney, just wind up coming across as laughable stock character with no depth or dimension to them.

 

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As for Winslet, who is usually compelling in everything she’s in, this role felt like she was crossing this genre off her filmography. Often reminding me of Jodie Foster’s role in last summer’s “Elysium”, Winslet does more with her role, injecting suspicion and curiosity the more we see her. Her reasoning my be thin and her methods formulaic, but her portrayal of Jeanine Matthews left me thinking there was untapped potential there.

The “Twilight Saga” kicked off the ceaseless YA movie adaptation craze, which caters to bringing a beloved series of books  to the big-screen for a built-in fan base. What those movies lacked in quality they made up in box office and elation from a predominately female audience. Those unfamiliar with the books were left scratching their heads (or their eyeballs out) at the superficial characterizations, stiff acting and grating dialogue. “The Hunger Games” came along next, with better acting and a more intriguing premise. Those two movies still had the major draw of a loyal readership, but so far, the transition to film actually combines fully-realized world-building, characters that feel real and intense stakes. If we were to compare, this first “Divergent” film (regardless how well this is received, there will be more) lands somewhere between those two YA adaptations, yet easily resting toward the latter.

As I sat in the IMAX theater at Chicago’s Navy Pier to the screening for “Divergent” (ironically a location that is featured in the movie), my peripheral vision noticed two women sitting a couple seats to the right of me. I don’t make a particularly concerted effort to look around a theater while a movie is playing and I hope that can be said about you as well, but I was distracted at times by their shared cheshire grins and audible gasps. Clearly, they were experiencing something I was not.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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