by Karina Montgomery, contributing writer
Rating: Rental Price
The film adaptation of Divergent is diverting, well-paced, and well-performed. Full disclosure: I had not managed to read Veronica Roth’s trilogy before seeing this film. Generally speaking, a movie that stirs my brain and/or spirit makes me want to run out and read the book afterward, if I had not before. Divergent fails on this count, and in fact reduced my former desire to read the books. I don’t think any of this is the fault of the screen adaptation, but rather the overly simplistic themes and frustrating lack of basic logic in the story.
Shailene Woodley beautifully plays Tris, a girl who is – spoiler alert! – Divergent! This basically means that she does not fit into just one of the five neat categories determined by the society in which she lives (an isolated post-cataclysm Chicago, color coded like Logan’s Run, but by faction rather than by generation). For some reason, if your personality is not entirely subsumed by your factional duty (kindness, self-denial, honesty, intellect, or bravery), then you are a huge threat to the status quo… yeah, see, it’s pretty silly already. Woodley acts the hell out of this movie, as do her compatriots on the screen. Mentor Four (Theo James) is almost too good looking to take seriously, but by Act III he brings it just as well as she does.
I totally get why the YA audience it was written for (and by) is smitten by it – it’s a vivid and high stakes portrayal of the coming of age struggle we all face as we leave high school and break out into college or the real world or wherever we go. I can see how someone who had been defined by their schoolmates/social identity for 18 years would want to emulate Tris and choose how they are identified going forward, or reject their stringent upbringing for something they deem more valuable. But as a metaphor, it’s fatally simplistic and still strained by the simple reality of That’s Not Really Not How People Work. If anything, Darwin would recommend more divergence rather than less; what a waste of human skills and potential to grind out all but one positive quality in each person. Woodley grounds Tris in a solid place and makes the whole thing believable, despite the 1980’s teen movie depth of the rest of the story.
We are never really privy to the threat that Divergents seem to represent, nor to the bigger picture motivations of the baddies. They tell us, but it’s not ever coherent enough a plan for us to think it has a remote chance of working. You can tell who’s the heavy as soon as you see her – it’s Kate Winslet, enjoying the pants off herself as basically a megalomaniacal Vulcan. Why she wishes to crush the meekest and mildest faction is never logical, and after a while it doesn’t matter. We’re really watching Tris come into her own, Stripes-like, going from zero to hero, and all the big picture machinations seem only to be pasteboard reasons for her to keep her secret shame to herself.
The rubble of Chicago houses this reborn society, which somehow let itself devolve into this ridiculous system (is the rest of the world gone, or coping similarly?). This microcosm walks a knife’s edge between “Know Thyself” and “Know Your Place.” This could lead to some very interesting philosophical ruminations about questioning authority and how misplaced leadership can stunt the burgeoning throes of rebuilding civilization. And maybe the other two books/movies will do that. But this movie was sadly forgettable while also being legitimately wonderful to experience as a piece of disposable entertainment. Cinematographer Alvin Küchler (Hanna and Sunshine, if that helps) shoots this beautifully and viscerally. There is a lot of interior landscape for him to traverse with his camera, and he makes it just as immediate as the real-life action.
- MPAA Rating: PG-13
- Release date: 3/21/14
- Time in minutes: 139
- Director: Neil Burger
- Studio: Summit/Lionsgate