DIVERGENT // A strong willed female character living in a dystopian future is forced out of her comfort zone as she leaves her home behind. Unable to trust those around her, she finds solace in training for her impending challenges, as she falls for the brooding, muscular male counterpart that trains her. Can you tell me, specifically, what story I am paraphrasing in the previous sentences? Obviously, you’re reading my review for “Divergent”, so you’re already aware of which I allude, but seriously place that next to a description of “The Hunger Games” and point out the differences to me. The point I’m trying to make is that there comes a time in storytelling when all the ideas are recycled. Truth be told, most stories are just variations of stories that have already been told. Especially in the young adult section of our entertainment libraries, these stories are getting more and more convoluted by the second. And with the success of “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games”, our theater screens and television sets become flooded with copy cats and recreations, cashing in on an audience that may or may not even look past those previously stated book adaptations. Yet, here we stand, with “Divergent” having opened in theaters, landing number one for the weekend.
“Divergent” is a melting pot of previously used ideas, also adapted for the screen from a popular series novel. With a variation of the sorting hat from “Harry Potter”, we’ve also got a jaded government that forces their ideals on the branches below them, almost identical to “The Hunger Games”. Although where there’s The Reaping in Suzanne Collins’, “Divergent” sees a choosing ceremony where those coming of age must pick which of the five work factions they desire based on their virtues. These five areas include: Abnegation, for the selfless; Amity, for the peaceful; Candor, for the honest; Dauntless, for the brave; and Erudite, for the Intelligent. Our Katniss Everdeen of this particular story is Beatrice “Tris” Prior played by the astounding Shailene Woodley. Instead of her bow and arrow to guide her through the perilous journey ahead, Beatrice was born with a gift to contain elements of all five factions, making her a rare breed known as… you guessed it, a Divergent. As the marketing would have you know extensively, “Divergent’s threaten the system”, meaning if people were to start thinking in all areas, this pointless separation system of checks and balances would crumble and fall.
What made “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” such great fantasy is the construction of new worlds. Of course, the basis of “The Hunger Games” could be originated to a film like “Battle Royale”, yet there’s enough originality in the former to keep it a fresh idea. Like “The Hunger Games” and its star Jennifer Lawrence, “Divergent” completely relies on the acting prowess of the young Shailene Woodley, who most definitely proves herself throughout the over extensive run-time of this film. From innocent and quiet Beatrice, to rebel and rule breaker Tris, Woodley slides effortlessly into this role. Just as Jennifer Lawrence became Katniss and made that role her own, so does Woodley take on Tris in similar fashion. Again like “The Hunger Games”, “Divergent” buckles under the weight of its own creations, with pile-ons of plot devices and characters to the point of overload and nonsense. What ifs become the basis of its storytelling. What if Beatrice and her brother both leave their parents behind as they switch factions? What if Tris doesn’t make it through Dauntless training? What if the government finds out that Tris is a Divergent? What if the government is planning an attack on one of the other factions to gain complete control? What if members of Dauntless become mindless robots? You could guess that some of these are not befitting of the film, but you’d be wrong. There’s really no wonder the run-time ends up at almost two and a half hours, with plot devices bursting at the seams.
For all tense and purposes, the cast in “Divergent” is stunning, not just hinging on lead Shailene Woodley, but the supporting cast as well. Kate Winslet takes on the role of the villain, Jeanine Matthews, the Erudite leader that looks to take over the other factions. Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Maggie Q, and Zoë Kravitz also take on some impressive roles, making the film much more easily digested for a non-fan like myself. And it even seems like Woodley pulled some strings to bring two of her co-stars from other films with her, seeing Miles Teller (“The Spectacular Now”) play another antagonist in the Dauntless training sequences, while Ansel Elgort (“The Fault In Our Stars”) plays Beatrice’s brother, Caleb. But the real show stealer beyond Woodley is the newcomer Theo James, playing the main love interest, Tobias “Four” Eaton. One of the best and brightest of Dauntless, he’s also one of the quietest and most mysterious. But as the two leads grow closer, that shroud is pulled down and, also revealed in the marketing, Tobias is another Divergent. His on-screen charisma is solid and played by anyone else, I feel this role would become schmaltzy (i.e. Liam Hemsworth in “The Hunger Games”). Instead, the role takes on the LOTR’s Strider persona that it attempts and holds all the way through. James’ chemistry with Woodley is far less creepy than the marketing made it seem as he grabbed her mid-section and she stares. Together, they make this film watchable and carry it from a completely average pile of recycling, to something I could actually see myself watching a second time.
In no way developing anything completely original, “Divergent” skirts by on the coattails of young adult films that came before it. But when films like “Vampire Academy” or “Beautiful Creatures” try to cash in on this same demographic and fail miserably, films like “Divergent” begin to not look so bad. With a solid marketing strategy, in which a large portion of the twisting plot is revealed, the film will find its mark in more than just the die-hard Veronica Roth fans. Shailene Woodley finds her place next to Jennifer Lawrence, as a young woman who can hold her own in the leading role, in a franchise that could go all the way, while Theo James lands on the scene in a big way, opening a slew of doors that we’ll be seeing him enter in the years to come. “Divergent” is a young adult film that I toyed around with liking throughout, but even by hour two I began wondering where this could all be going and remembering the Katniss glance at the camera from the end of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” last year, I questioned how big the proverbial balls were of the writers, to leave a somewhat open ending to a potential franchise film that could have easily bombed out of the gate. With not much of a cliffhanger, after wrapping up most of the loose ends, “Divergent” will be successful enough to see its sequels get made with release dates for both “Insurgent” and “Allegiant” already set. Ultimately, it’s not the writers of “Divergent” that should completely be blamed for the derivative nature of the story, it is storytelling in general, that creates the cyclical nature of ideas in an age where screenplays are churned out like newspapers on a conveyer belt. And with an overabundance of storytelling happening, the audience will simply have to buckle in and wait for better days to come while enduring these repeats.
[Directed by Neil Burger] [PG-13] [139 min] [21 March 2014]