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Review: Divergent (2014)

Divergent (2014)

Directed by: Neil Burger

Premise: An adaptation of the novel by Veronica Roth. Set in a dystopian future, a young woman is regarded as a threat to society when she is unable to fit into the social and economic power structure.

What Works: The dystopian future is a common premise of science fiction movies, going back at least as far as Fritz Lang’s silent epic Metropolis, and by now it’s become a cliché, but the story world of Divergent has a clever and thought-provoking premise. The film takes place in the city of Chicago generations after a war has laid waste to civilization. The surviving society has set up a rigid caste system in which young people are given a hallucinogenic test that determines which social group they belong in. Those who don’t fit into one of society’s predetermined categories are social pariahs and especially threatening are those determined to be divergent, meaning that they possess qualities of multiple social groups. This premise is rich with potential; the divergent concept is a metaphor of the way society marginalizes people who don’t fit into preconceived tracks and of the extent to which the elites of a social and economic system will go to preserve that structure.

What Doesn’t: Divergent has a good premise but this movie frequently misses the mark and its shortcomings are highlighted by comparing this film to The Hunger Games. Aside from being based on popular young adult books, these two stories are remarkably similar in their premise, characters, conflicts, themes, and politics. But where The Hunger Games did this story very well and often exceeded expectations, Divergent is frequently underwhelming. The film starts with a compelling premise but the society of Divergent is not well rendered. The mechanics and implications of the social structure are never sufficiently explored and the film leaves a lot of fundamental questions unanswered. That lack of context undermines the drama of the movie. The majority of Divergent takes place in the training facility of the Dauntless faction, who constitute the military arm of the society. The set design is strange and makes very little sense; the Dauntless facilities seem less like a military training camp and more like gang headquarters from The Warriors. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that almost the entire cast of Divergent appear to be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five years old. The society has no children nor anyone elderly and this degrades the illusion of a credible society. This leads to another of the film’s problems: its main character. Like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, Tris of Divergent spends the bulk of the movie training for battle and turning herself into a killer. The casting of Shailene Woodley as Tris is a mistake. She has proven herself to be a fine actress in other films but Woodley does not possess the physicality or the scrappiness to convincingly play the role. But aside from the miscasting, the film mishandles its hero. Tris has very little to do. She’s not an agent of action until the very end and she does very little that is actually heroic. That’s a result of another major fault of Divergent: its plotting. The film has no discernible villain and the antagonist played by Kate Winslet is bland and not very threatening, unlike President Snow of The Hunger Games. Instead of taking a stand against adversity, Tris is frequently pushed around by outside forces, making her an uninteresting hero. The film attempts to liven up the story with a romance but here Divergent is less like The Hunger Games and more like Twilight. The romance is forced, the relationship does not have any passion to it, and the story never substantiates their love. 

Bottom Line: Divergent has a good premise but the filmmakers fail to shape that premise into a satisfying story. This movie comes across as a weak attempt to duplicate The Hunger Games, imitating all of the superficial aspects of that film but missing the details that made it work.

Episode: #484 (March 30, 2014)