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Review: 'Divergent' Starring Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet, Miles Teller & More

Reviews
by Todd Gilchrist
March 16, 2014 4:35 PM
20 Comments
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The cornerstone of young adult fiction is its exploration of personal, emotional issues through the filter of ridiculously high stakes, not the least of which because teenagers equate their feelings with the center of the universe. But when film adaptations of that material build real universes to physically embody those issues, the results are decidedly mixed, exemplified by Neil Burger’s realization of “Divergent.”

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.

Shailene Woodley (“The Spectacular Now”) plays Tris, a young woman raised in a futuristic society where its citizens are divided into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Dauntless. Tested for her aptitude in each, her results come back inconclusive—“divergent,” a forbidden designation since it violates the one-quality-per-person system installed by the government. But when she’s allowed to choose which faction she wants to join, she picks Dauntless, and soon finds herself being trained by Four (Theo James) to defend society from invisible threats that lurk beyond the city walls.

Struggling to keep pace physically but outclassing her fellow trainees in strategy and planning, Tris is forced to hide her gifts in order not to attract the attention of government leaders, like Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), and Erudite, to whom divergents are seen as a threat. But when Erudite stages a coup to overthrow Abnegation’s rule using Dauntless’ ranks as enforcers, Tris finds herself not only in a fight for her life, but all of society as civil war erupts between factions.

At almost 140 minutes, there’s no better way to describe “Divergent” than as a bit of a slog. Where at the very least “The Hunger Games” (and its sequel) shuffled quickly from macro to micro with its world building, Burger’s film takes its time introducing the idea of factions, and devotes enormous attention to Tris’ identity crisis before audiences get any real sense of the larger societal issues that will be explored.

But notwithstanding the ridiculousness of the notion that a society would ever consider this system an effective way of addressing its problems, needless to say there’s something provocative about the concept of a world that seems to have you figured out even before you do. In that regard, this is bullseye teen material, not just in terms of the practical challenges of choosing a college and a major, but the notion that every choice you make is not just defining, but evaluated by others, whether it’s how you dress or behave, what friends you pick, or what your appetites are.

That said, the way the movie defines the factions is thoughtful but indisputably silly. Members of Dauntless, for example, seem to run everywhere they go, and they travel by constantly running trains, which they jump on and off to board and disembark. Needless to say, the factions are all simplistically rendered, because they’re simplistically conceived, and while those primary colors provide the story with clear conflicts, they reduce the complexity of those conflicts, as if it’s remotely possible to simply focus on one personality characteristic, or switch off others, once a largely arbitrary decision has been made which is most important to each individual.

Thankfully, Woodley makes for more than uncertain enough of a hero to add detail and meaning to the implosion of this world. Not unlike “The Hunger Games” actress Jennifer Lawrence, there’s little artifice to her performance, and the mundane honesty of her reactions create a believability that the world would otherwise lack. As Four, meanwhile, James manages the considerable accomplishment of seeming like a real grown-up man rather than a teenage girl’s image of a dreamy boy, and he makes the character’s transformation from hardass to collaborator seem natural, if inevitable. Meanwhile, Winslet conveys one-dimensional menace in a way that is probably more attributable to the script than her skill as an actress.

But ultimately, the elasticity of the story—its sometimes lackadaisical, others aggressive pacing—is what may challenge audiences to embrace this in the way it has “The Hunger Games” even more than the silliness of its universe. Because there’s some genuinely great ideas in the film, and some terrific character work, but it’s given such uneven attention, alternately languished upon and glossed over, that the portrait Burger creates feels complete without, well, making us feel a whole lot else.

Ultimately, Burger’s film is, to its credit, probably second-best among the YA adaptations that Hollywood has mounted since “Twilight” put the subgenre on the map. But with a second installment already going into production, one hopes that the series’ world-building is done and its world-living can begin. Because the quality that “Divergent” still lacks is the broader emotional resonance that makes it distinctive—which is why, for the time being, it’s not yet being defined by anything other than what it isn’t. [B-]


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20 Comments

  • Rosie | April 26, 2014 12:58 AMReply

    ["Thankfully, Woodley makes for more than uncertain enough of a hero to add detail and meaning to the implosion of this world. Not unlike “The Hunger Games” actress Jennifer Lawrence, there’s little artifice to her performance, and the mundane honesty of her reactions create a believability that the world would otherwise lack. "]


    I keep forgetting that we have now moved into the age of bashing Jennifer Lawrence. Instead of considering that both actresses are first-rate performers, you had to compliment one to the detriment of the other. How typical and immature.

  • Words | July 30, 2014 9:18 AM

    "not unlike" = "like"

    The author is positively comparing the two. Read.

  • Josh | March 19, 2014 1:07 AMReply

    "second-best among the YA adaptations that Hollywood has mounted since “Twilight" - So are you saying it's not as good as Twilight? if so, then I now have very little faith in this movie. Twilight is garbage.

  • Rachel | March 18, 2014 4:00 PMReply

    I've read the series and I really like it. Usually the movie is never better than the book unless the book is really awful. I will see the movie anyway, no matter it's good or not. Seemingly the movie is good but the film company has put out too many clips which I do not think is a good idea. Even though I've read the book I don't want to see so many long-enough clips before watching the full movie. Anyway, I love Divergent and if this first movie isn't that good I hope the followers will be better.

  • Ralph Phillips | March 17, 2014 7:27 PMReply

    As soon as I read _________ best since Twilight ---- all credibility tossed out the window for this review. I mean c'mon.

  • Ron | March 17, 2014 11:18 PM

    Not necessarily. All they said was "Twilight" put the genre on the map which is true, it really did.

  • Laura | March 17, 2014 10:21 PM

    You need to get some better reading comprehension. He was referring to Twilight as the movie series that put the genre of YA fiction as movies on the map. An argument could also be made for Harry Potter in that respect... though that was a bit more universally liked. He was not referring to Twilight as the best of the YA fiction series based movies. I'm going to guess he gives that honor to Hunger Games since he mentions it several times in comparison, though he doesn't specify in that last sentence. Reading comprehension...learn it, live it, love it dude.

  • carli&hannah | March 17, 2014 12:14 PMReply

    hannah- I love the book.
    carli- tobias is CUTE!

  • Elma Sherry | March 17, 2014 8:34 AMReply

    i know the entire story !have read entire series.. It's good it's not make any diffidence of age! they look good and compliment each other..

  • KT | March 16, 2014 10:56 PMReply

    Yeesh, as soon as this sappy undercooked teeny shit hits the screen all the females start commenting like clockwork.

  • marie | March 17, 2014 2:22 PM

    Agreed. It is similar to every entertainment news story about the highly overrated Jennifer Lawrence . Her ridiculously over-the-top tween fans will go to every comment section to give their very positive opinions and defend her honor .

  • Donna | March 16, 2014 9:49 PMReply

    Not sure why people are saying this is a negative review. A B- is a pretty good grade. I think those who have read the books will have more insight into what is going on and be more invested already in the characters and world they inhabit. Perhaps those who haven't read them won't enjoy the film as much.

    Question: In the book, Tris is 16 and Four is 18 but the actors were 22 (or 21?) and 28 during filming I think. Personally, I don't see a large gap in their age.

  • Guest | March 16, 2014 10:37 PM

    Whatever the actors ages, it still appears James is significantly older than Woodley, like a grown man w/a teen. She fits the character's 16-17 yrs, but, he seems quite a bit beyond being able to pull off 18 or perhaps even 20.

  • Nicole | March 16, 2014 9:45 PMReply

    B-? ill take unlike other YA Book to movies who get like C's and D's.

  • susan | March 16, 2014 8:02 PMReply

    I know this is a bit jerky, but the phrase "needless to say" is used twice within five sentences. If it's needless to say, don't say it. But in both cases the observations are totally warranted, so you don't have to qualify them.

  • Emperor Zerg Rush | March 17, 2014 12:52 AM

    Needless to say, they did. Contrary to what some may think, the "don't say it" approach with opinions/observations like that doesn't equate to them being universally obvious to every person.

  • Lucky | March 16, 2014 5:41 PMReply

    I've read the series and there's actually a reason why they behave the way they do & why they are able to be separated into factions, it's revealed later on. They should have maybe hinted at that in this movie. At least it seems to have faired better than the usual adaptations.

  • Age Difference | March 16, 2014 5:30 PMReply

    I think in the book, Shailene's character is 16 and Theo's character is 18, but in the film he looks much older. I don't know if his character is actually older in the film than he was in the book or if it's just another case of Hollywood casting actors in their late 20s as male teenagers. Shailene looks younger but is actually 22. Theo looks about his age, which is 29.

  • DoctorControversy | March 16, 2014 5:30 PMReply

    Robert "RIPD" Schwentke is signed on for the next two... so don't expect things to get better.

    Kinda discouraging to read all of the negative reviews on this one, because the book was decent enough that it could have been a great movie.

    Did they manage to portray the violence in a PG13 bordering on R rating manner, or is it highly sanitized? The actual book is pretty damned violent.

  • Question | March 16, 2014 4:54 PMReply

    I have not read the books, but, from the available images and clips, it appears Woodley and James ultimately become a romantic pairing. Not sure the ages of the characters, but, Woodley appears 17 or so while James at least 30. Rather unsettling based on appearances IMHO. Does it work in the film?

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