Review: Divergent (2014)

Divergent

Rating

Director
Neil Burger
Screenplay
Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor (Novel: Veronica Roth)
Length
139 min.
Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Amy Newbold, Ben Lamb
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality

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Review
Young women growing, branching out and exploring their identities is a key theme in the teen-targeted post-apocalyptic genre exemplified in books like The Hunger Games and Divergent. The film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s Divergent doesn’t have the depth to succeed on the same level as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, it has enough interesting flourishes to entertain, if not necessarily to inform.

Divergent falls into an acharacteristic subset of the science fiction genre, the post-apocalyptic drama. Lumped into the overarching milieu, the post-apocalyptic film is set in a dark future where technology has either diminished or collapsed to the point where society struggles to exist without it. In Divergent these modern advances exist, but because of the conflicts of the past, they have largely been reserved for special circumstances or situations.

For this story, the overriding tech pervading the narrative is a device that allows the machine to dig into the subject’s mind and present it with challenges that test the person’s ability to reason or rationlize. It is first used on teens that are about to leave their homes where they must face a series of tasks that determine what faction they should petition to join. Society, destroyed from troubles like selfishness, stupidity, fear and other ills, has been able to rebuild itself by dividing the populace into castes. These factions are responsible for keeping society operating within acceptable paramters.

This story revolves around a young woman born of the Abnegation faction, a group devoted to selflessness and responsible for running the city’s government. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) doesn’t understand how her brother and others in her caste can give of them selflessly as she is constantly harboring selfish thoughts. When the day of choosing arrives, where all teenagers become adults and decide the faction they will forever be a part of, she decides to join Dauntless, the group of fearless men and women who protect the land from without and within, but from what it isn’t certain.

After choosing a new name, Tris fights to emerge from the lower rungs of the leaderboard, which will determine who gets to remain in Dauntless or who must become factionless, a fate almost worse than death. These are the poor, living on the streets with only Abnegation to feed and care for them. As part of Dauntless, she must overcome her greatest fears. It’s there she comes to understand the term “Divergent,” the name associated with those who do not conform to one of the five factions’ ideals and thus are a danger to the success of society, at least to those in power.

Director Neil Burger understands populism, his films have largely fallen into that category, but have never been outstanding visually with the lone exception perhaps The Illusionist. The same can be said of Divergent, which results in a fairly flat lighting design. The post-apocalyptic subgenre deserves rich darkness blended with blinding lights at times. There are many excamples of how to use light and shadow evocatively, many of them employed by Burger’s cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler. There are varying lighting schemes in the film, but none seem to take on a character of their own, becoming definitions of the scenes that were shot.

General production design is interesting, but frequently inert, though the costume design is adapted well from the descriptions provided from the book. That said, this is a film that is more keenly focused on the interactions between people. Why else would you hire someone like Kate Winslet to embody Tris’ nemesis Jeanine? Winslet isn’t out of her depth, but she’s not given the kind of character whose permitted to be glossily villainous. The book’s antagonist is seldom seen in the book, but her description is oozing with blackness. Winslet gives her a slight tweak to seem more broadly appealing, but not enough to be fully dimensional.

Woodley, on the other hand, showcases her talent well here. Tris is the kind of headstrong, yet vulnerable character that often plays a large role in these teen-targeted romances. Woodley showed great range in her first major outing in The Descendants and while she doesn’t quite have the versitility of Jennifer Lawrence, she’s in the same class of talented young thespians who could emerge from a successful franchise career with a lot of new opportunities.

It’s hit-or-miss for romantic interests in these types of films to match the effectiveness of the lead. Whether that’s an attempt to keep them secondary to the protagonist or a lack of capability depends on the role. Liam Hemsworth in The Hunger Games doesn’t give us the idea that he’s very talented, whereas Josh Hutcherson in the same film does a superb job. Here, Theo James presents a strong counter-point to the Tris character. As Four, the trainer fro the faction transfers in Dauntless, he must project a cool contempt for his trainees in order to insure they learn and grow. His subtle thawing as the film progresses is a terrific pairing with the slowly hardening Tris.

The film doesn’t entirely soften the rough edges of the novel. Unconvincingly written at times, the book struggles to find an approachable tone, relying on first person present tense, which is a tad distracting. The novel also features a third act turn that is tonally at odds with the first two acts. The film tries hard to keep the sudden shift from startling the audience. It doesn’t entirely succeed, but it is a bit more streamlined than its source material.

For what it is, the film is a success. A sometimes cogent blend of post-apocalyptic exploration and socio-political philosophizing. Divergent also keeps the novels heavy-handed anti-intellectualism at bay, making the film feel more naturally all-inclusive rather than trying to intimate that a vast mind is a dangerous thing.
Oscar Prospects
Unlikelies: Everything
Review Written
April 8, 2014

3 Comments

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  1. Sorry I was so bent that I got my own grammar wrong I meant “to use the term.”

  2. I hope it was just a slip of the keys, but it really is unforgivable for a critic that makes so much of being literate uses the term ‘protagonist’ to describe the villain.

    1. Thanks for the catch. It was definitely a typo. I re-read the paragraph and confirmed that I hadn’t been talking about Tris at all, which means I flubbed that one. I missed it and so did my editor. Chalk one up for the reader.

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