By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 17, 2014 at 10:48AM
With "The Descendents," "The Spectacular Now" and "White Bird in a Bilzzard," Shailene Woodley's been on enough of a big-screen roll to raise expectations that "Divergent" might be more than another cookie-cutter "Hunger Games" knockoff. But judging from the first wave of reviews, audiences hoping for Woodley's leading-role breakthrough will have to wait for "The Fault in Our Stars" later this year. Using words like "slog," critics slam Neil Burger's adaptation of the first book in Veronica Roth's trilogy for being less a movie than a leaden transcription of the book, spending so much time setting up its dystopian future that "Divergent" feels like it's barely getting started at the end of its two and a quarter hour running time. Here's what they're saying:
Andrew Barker, Variety
Director Neil Burger seems so concerned with laying franchise groundwork that he neglects to create an engaging standalone movie, and "Divergent's" uncertain sense of setting, bloated plot, drab visual style and solid yet underwhelming lead turns from Shailene Woodley and Theo James don’t necessarily make the best case for series newcomers.
Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter
Even with star Shailene Woodley delivering the requisite toughness and magnetism, the clunky result is almost unrelentingly grim. Dystopia can be presented in dynamic ways, but this iteration of it is, above all, no picnic for the audience.
Alonso Duralde, the Wrap
"Divergent" would be forgivable in its flagrant borrowing of ideas, tropes and characters from some of the most popular young-adult fiction of the last 20 years or so if it spun those ideas around, flipped them and gave them a sassy new paint job. As it is, the film (based on the novel by Veronica Roth) jolts around in fits and starts, never sufficiently explains its premise and, yes, rips off far too many notions from better books and movies to stride successfully down its own path.
Tim Grierson, Screen International
It’s not that "Divergent" doesn’t have any provocative ideas. But because its thematic content mostly feels second-hand, "Divergent" doesn’t stir the imagination: Just as its boot-camp plot is recycled from the cutthroat competitions within "Ender’s Game" and "The Hunger Games," the film's political messages won’t shock anyone familiar with the sci-fi genre, where a central tenet is the use of futuristic societies to make pointed observations about modern times.
Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine
So long as Roth's scenario focuses on Tris attempting to adjust to her chosen family's brutish training regiment (shades of Katniss) and sincerely wondering if she hasn't made the incorrect decision, Divergent transcends the deja vu of its borrowed trappings and serves as a working metaphor for that transitional moment in any young adult's life where they're expected to step out on their own.
Todd Gilchrist, the Playlist
Using Veronica Roth’s dystopian future as the foundation for a story of self-actualization, Burger succeeds in aping the cool proficiency of its obvious cinematic predecessor, "The Hunger Games," unfortunately without elevating Roth’s concept to more than an effective if slightly overwrought academic exercise.
Scott Mendelson, Forbes
Disconnected from the expectations of its sub-genre and the weight of its advance publicity, "Divergent" is a sporadically entertaining coming-of-age action film that nonetheless works best as metaphor.