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REVIEW: Does 'Divergent' Have Legs?

Reviews
by John Anderson
March 20, 2014 12:52 PM
9 Comments
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Shailene Woodley in "Divergent"
Shailene Woodley in "Divergent"
Shailene Woodley and Theo James of "Divergent" at Comic-Con 2013
Shailene Woodley and Theo James of "Divergent" at Comic-Con 2013

Anti-fascist (sort of) and pro-girl (definitely), “Divergent’ – the first in the trilogy-to-be based on the Veronica Roth novels -- is meant to position Shailene Woodley as the next in the Jennifer Lawrence/Emma Watson/Lily Collins line of YA-inspired warrior princesses, doing battle against ignorance, demons and/or dystopia. But Woodley plays another kind of anti-super-heroine, one possessed of reluctance and doubt, as well as canniness, cunning and (BTW) great hair. The question is whether her movie has legs.

From the very subdued opening credits, which dissolve into a field of waving grass, one can see that director Neil Burger is going for something different from the competition. Short on FX, long on brutality, “Divergent" boasts an almost indie level of visual grit, subdued CGI, minimal effects for maximum atmosphere and violence that really stings. Although “Divergent” is set in the post-apocalyptic walled city of Chicago, where society has been divided by personality (the smart, the selfless, the honest, the brave…) the story is not about futurism but survival. There’s little rebuilding evident. The characters romp among the ruins. Beyond the wall lies something, or someone, but we don’t know who or what. It’s a static society, except for the continued separation of the its citizenry into dangerously polarized factions. In other words, it’s like Florida.  

“Divergent” which will be followed by “Insurgent” and “Allegiant” also feels like a set-up for those movies, with an unconscionable amount of exposition and introduction. This is part of “Divergent’s” major problem: It’s not really a high-concept movie, and is trying to be one, hence its fuzzy impulses and skewed logic.

Reasonably faithful to the book, “Divergent” introduces Beatrice (a.k.a. Tris) Prior on the eve of the big exam: Like every young person in Chicagoland, she will be tested to determine what group will best suit her for the rest of her life. Will it be her family’s group, Abnegation (the selfless)?  Dauntless (the brave)? Candor (the honest)? Erudite (the knowledgeable)? Amity (the peaceful)? To the horror of her examiner (Maggie Q), Tris comes up “divergent" – she fits into Dauntless, Abnegation and Erudite. She is warned never to say a word about it, for reasons as yet unknown, and joins Dauntless –to Burger’s relief, we can imagine, since watching Tris sit around being selfless or well-read for the next 90 minutes wouldn’t be particularly exciting.

As it is… it’s not particularly exciting, not because there isn’t action, but because there isn’t an emotional rope to hang onto. There is a good deal of cruelty and violence as the would-be Dauntleteers are shamed, humiliated, beaten and repeatedly tested to see who will actually make the cut. Tris is in danger of flunking out – homelessness and indigence are the fate of the Factionless – but she begins to slowly rise in the esteem of her peers and her trainers, who include hunkmeister Theo James as Four. She  positions herself as a leader of Dauntless, just as the group gets co-opted into a coup to turn the city into something even more fascistic than it already is.

Kate Winslet is pure poison as Jeanine Matthews, the leader of Erudite, who takes a liking to Tris, but obviously has some insidious schemes up her braceleted sleeves. The plot thickens, as it will, but what “Divergent” never recognizes – and this may keep audiences from responding to it in an instinctive, visceral way— is the malignancy of the existing system. Our city, Jeanine tells her citizens, is a living thing; the factions are its cells. But this is the kind of philosophy the Judeo-Christian tradition rendered obsolete 2,000 years ago. Sure, it may persist --Vladimir Putin might find a lot to admire in  “Divergent's” politics. But audiences may find weird all the effort and emotion being expended to eliminate threats to a system that’s already cancerous. To grab us and keep us, the dystopic sci-fi action adventure should contain evil that’s distinct and distinctive. There’s a lot of intellectual aerobics going on in this one, but that doesn’t usually win over fans, or make them feverish.

9 Comments

  • Anne Thompson | March 20, 2014 7:47 PMReply

    The writer of this review is John Anderson. Not me. I'm the editor who writes some of the content on toh! but not all of it. And let the record show that I have always supported the talent of Kristen Stewart--who like many actors occasionally takes a flier on a weak indie film. My review of Camp X-Ray made it clear that its problems were not her fault.

  • Cara | March 20, 2014 5:02 PMReply

    I dislike Shailene Woodley and have no interest in the books so hopefully this will flop

  • Janna | March 20, 2014 5:01 PMReply

    I liked the first book and the movie looks like it did the original somewhat justice. The most glaring part of this article to me is Kristen Stewart's name was omitted from the list of YA heroines, which given it is Anne Thompson, comes as no surprise. It has become increasingly obvious that Thompson has a bias against Stewart in her reviews of everything she has done most recently her latest film to hit Sundance, where across the board Stewart received good reviews even if the movie only received mediocre ones. So Anne includes Lawrence's Katniss, Watson's Hermione, and are you kidding me Lily Collins (who did she play again?), but omits Stewart's Bella who was one of the first YA female protagonists. Yeah we see your true colors, Anne.

  • Diana | March 17, 2014 12:33 PMReply

    I read the books and was shocked that Tris dies a mindless death in the 3rd book Allegiant. Such a downer and completely ill-fitting end to the series. It is so bad that I don't even want to see any of the movies. Also, the reviews of the Divergent have not been encouraging or convincing to spend my time and $$$ on it. The books are enough for me.

  • Tracy | March 20, 2014 4:55 PM

    Gee, thanks for the spoiler, which is no doubt why you posted this. Jerk.

  • No | March 20, 2014 1:30 PM

    Why is anyone taking at face value what Diana said about Allegiant? May be she's trolling. You don't know until you venture on. Be dauntless.

  • Juan | March 18, 2014 7:22 PM

    I'm reading the first book right now and you've just ruined the whole reading experience for me (and for many people I'm sure), for the whole series, with your abysmally stupid comment. You are, quite simply, an idiot.

  • Steve | March 18, 2014 3:07 PM

    Why in the hell would you spoil the series like that? What is wrong with you? I've read the books so it doesn't affect me, but seriously. Just because you didn't like it doesn't mean everyone else feels the same way by the way. I thought it was completely fitting of the character that was built up over the three books.

  • Pedro | March 17, 2014 2:09 PM

    [sarcasm]Many thanks for the spoiler![/sarcasm]

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