An intriguing premise, sharp casting and thoughtful world-building make “Divergent” an engrossing science-fiction adventure.
Based on the first novel in Veronica Roth’s best-selling trilogy, “Divergent” is Hollywood’s latest adaptation of a post-apocalyptic female-centered young adult book series. But just as it doesn’t matter how many comic book movies or space epics hit theaters as long as film fans find engaging moviegoing experiences, what counts is not that “Divergent” bears a strong resemblance to “The Hunger Games” but whether it offers a variation on the theme that’s worth seeing.
“Divergent” was a surprisingly gripping film, considering my lack of familiarity with the book (I have since given it a quick read-through and found the film faithful to the story) and the movie’s 143-minute runtime.
Much of the credit goes to Shailene Woodley, who boasts an everygirl authenticity, emotional translucency and believable smarts and toughness.
Set in Chicago after a distant war that zeroed out civilization, “Divergent” imagines an America that has adopted a strict society divided into five castes, or factions, to maintain peace and balance. Members of Abnegation value selflessness, do all charitable work and run the government as public servants. The Erudite are the intelligensia and work as teachers and researchers, while Candor value honesty and make up the legal and judicial class. Amity are devoted to kindness, work as farmers and provide food for all. Dauntless value bravery, train as the military and protect society, which includes guarding against mysterious dangers outside the towering electric fence surrounding the city.
Beatrice Prior (Woodley) has been raised in Abnegation but has trouble conforming to their standards of self-denial and feels especially inadequate given that her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) are among the faction and government leaders. Since she and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) have just turned 16, they are preparing for their Choosing Ceremony in which they declare which faction they will join.
To help them make the choice, teens undergo a drug-induced personality test. When Beatrice takes her test, her alarmed proctor, Tori (Maggie Q), tells her the results were inconclusive. Beatrice is divergent, meaning her mind refuses to conform to a single way of thinking. Because nonconformity is considered deviant and dangerous, Tori warns her to keep the results secret at all costs.
At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice rejects Abnegation and joins the Dauntless. Beatrice, rechristened Tris, and fellow “transfers” — including the clever Christina (Zoe Kravitz), the gentle giant Al (Christian Madsen) and the sadistic Peter (Miles Teller, Woodley’s “The Spectacular Now” co-star) — are plunged into a strange subterranean world where they are expected to jump from moving trains, learn an array of weaponry and engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat training.
Although director Neil Burger (“Limitless”) arguably lingers too long on the training sequences, he allows the film to convincingly show Tris’ transformation from a sheltered weakling to a determined fighter who learns to depend on her smarts, quickness and bravery, qualities her tough but noble instructor Four (Theo James, who has excellent chemistry with Woodley) encourages her to develop. But as she must submit to more mental tests designed root out her fears, the chances her divergence will be discovered go up.
When Tris begins to suspect that the Erudite, led by the coldly calculating Jeanine (Kate Winslet), are planning to unite with the Dauntless to overthrow the Abnegation government, she feels compelled to act, even if it means revealing her secret.
Some plot points are predictable, the music telegraphs too many developments and the dialogue could use sharpening, but “Divergent” boasts a strong and smart action heroine — still a sadly rare cinematic phenomenon — and enough interesting sci-fi storytelling that it kept me watching and got me to read the book, too.
— Brandy McDonnell
PG-13 2:233 stars
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz. (Intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality)