A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. 3 of 4 stars.
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” indeed 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 or British period dramas that hit theaters as long as film fans find engaging moviegoing experiences within these genres, 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.
For me, “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. It’s the first time in recent memory that a film that long didn’t feel ponderous and overindulgent.
Much of the credit goes to Shailene Woodley, who is sure to garner even more comparisons to “The Hunger Games’” Jennifer Lawrence after her film-carrying lead turn in “Divergent.” Indeed, both boast boasts an everygirl authenticity, emotional translucency and believable smarts and toughness. along with star-caliber charisma.
Perhaps even more than “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” captures the essence of young adult fiction, keenly cloaking adolescent fears – both the ones about identity and life choices that have been around forever and the ones about the uncertainty of our present time – in sci-fi and pop-psychology tropes.
Set in Chicago after a distant, massive war that left great swaths of the city still in ruin and 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 intelligentsia and work as teachers and researchers, while Candor value honesty and make up the law 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, from internal and external threats, 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 she feels especially inadequate given 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 will decide which faction they will join. as they move into adulthood.
The stakes are high: You can move into another faction, but the choice is permanent and you must leave behind your family and all you’ve known. You will have to learn an entirely new way of life, and if you fail to pass initiation, you end up factionless, condemned to life on the outskirts of society.
To help them make the life-changing choice, teens undergo a drug-induced personality test to determine which faction is their best fit. 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. Since 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. because she admires their boldness and daring. Along with 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) – Beatrice, rechristened Tris, is 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 training.
While director Neil Burger (“Limitless”) arguably lingers too long on the familiar training sequences, he also allows the film to convincingly show Tris’ transformation from a small, 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, chewing scenery in full-on ice-queen mode), 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 of the 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.