Review: Divergent (2014)

Divergent is a bland corporate product. The Hunger Games ignited the public fascination with dystopian young adult adaptations, and Divergent is the first of many such adaptations to hit the multiplex this year. While its artistic success it questionable, the film hit its intended mark. It’s making good money at the box office and its target demographic (young women) is satisfied with it. But that doesn’t make it a good movie. Despite its promising cast and interesting director, Divergent is bloated, shallow, and devoid of any stimulating ideas.

Some of this blame has to rest with the story’s creator, Veronica Roth, who wrote the novel the film is based upon and imbued it with little thematic interest. In both Roth’s novel and director Neil Burger’s film, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) is a young woman living in Chicago around a hundred years in the future. The city is held together through a faction system. When a person turns 16, they choose to join one of five factions, each representing a certain personality trait and skill set. Tris was born into Abnegation, the faction of public servants who are meant to serve the populace through their selflessness. Tris’s parents assume Tris will choose Abnegation as her faction, but her personality tests flag her as Divergent, an anomalous type of person who could fit into multiple factions.

Free to choose whichever faction she wants and without a clear test result to guide her in her decision, Tris chooses to join Dauntless, the faction of fearless soldiers. The rest of the film is dedicated to Tris’s training regiment to officially join Dauntless, and her gradual uncovering of a plot by the intellectual faction, Erudite, to overthrow Abnegation and gain control of Chicago. I’m going into more detail than I usually would, but Divergent is impossible to understand if the faction system is not clear. As well, the film spends ample time setting up this faction system, making it clear that Chicago lives or dies on how the factions coexist.

Too much time, in fact. Divergent is a film that could have cut at least 40 minutes from its running time. But being an adaptation of a popular YA novel, the filmmakers intend to placate the target audience that wants an exact replication of the novel. When film convention (and good sense) would dictate shortening the excessive Dauntless training sequence that takes up the bulk of the film, the fangirl appeasement approach demands portraying the training sequence in exhausting detail. The sequence has special significance for this fanbase as it introduces Tris to her love interest, a brooding instructor named Four (Theo James).

Some critics have commented that Divergent owes as much to Twilight as to The Hunger Games. While Divergent is far more similar to the latter than the former, it is also consciously trying to win over the romantic acolytes of Twilight more than The Hunger Games did. The relationship between Tris and Four certainly bears some resemblance to the romance between Edward and Bella. While it’s not nearly as hyperbolic as Edward and Bella’s, the romance between Tris and Four fits into the same preordained patterns. From the moment the film introduces Four, it’s clear he is the love interest and that he’ll end up with Tris in the end. The only conflict standing in the way of their romance is Four’s own stoicism and reticence to let someone else in. But as Four coaches Tris to success throughout the training regiment and his stoic barriers drop, the romance blossoms. When they finally kiss, the film hasn’t earned the spark between the two. It merely needs a romantic respite before the second act climax.

There is potential in the type of story Divergent is trying to tell, but it brings little imagination to it. As a fan of dystopian fiction, I’m disappointed that this current fascination with the genre hasn’t produced anything more compelling than The Hunger Games, which, while effective and thrilling, is also made from borrowed parts. Divergent has a talented cast, full of promising newcomers like Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort and stalwart veterans like Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd, but these actors have little to do in their roles. The franchise will surely make a star of Woodley, but her talents are better directed towards films like The Spectacular Now, which utilize her naturalistic beauty and grit. It’s refreshing to see another franchise anchored by a female character with agency, but Tris lacks psychological depth beyond her struggle to create an identity for herself.

The director, Neil Burger, who made the most of his limited resources and created a fascinating visual palette in the thriller Limitless drops the ball here. In Limitless, Burger used his camera to display the intellectual calculations of its main character, utilizing zoom techniques and a varying colour scheme to distinguish between the character’s mental states.

In Divergent, Burger gets his opportunity to do something unique in the dream tests that Tris has to take in order to overcome her fears. However, he only literalizes the fears she has to overcome: a swarm of birds, fire, and drowning. Instead of embracing the logic of a dream and freeing his camera to suggest the enormous possibility of dreams, he sticks to simple medium wide shots and steadicam moves, filming the dream much like he films the real life action scenes. Burger does little to elucidate any deeper themes through the filmmaking. Perhaps this is a signal that Divergent has no deeper themes to explore, and the best Burger could do is obscure that fact through rote filmmaking convention.

This lack of thematic interest is the fatal flaw of Divergent. Its dystopian world offers no compelling commentary on our world other than arguing for the importance of personal choice. It is only as fascinating as the moment-to-moment scene is, and unless you’re a teenager or YA enthusiast, caught up in the romance or the emotional turmoil of Tris’s decisions, the individual moments don’t amount to much. Divergent is fatally bland. For a film championing individuality, it sure does take the popular approach to everything.

4 out of 10

Divergent (2014, USA)

Directed by Neil Burger; written by Evan Daughtery and Vanessa Taylor based off the novel by Veronica Roth; starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, and Kate Winslet.