Led by a subdued, yet effective performance from the always wonderful Shailene Woodley, Divergent is a satisfying kickoff for the franchise.
BY RYAN MILOWICKI
When it comes to tentpole YA novel adaptations, I’ve found it a safe assumption that hardcore fans of the books will turn out in droves regardless of reviews, and likely thoroughly enjoy themselves. Thus, there’s really no need to discuss these types of movies through their lens. As someone who hasn’t read the Veronica Roth-penned series, it’ll thus be my duty today to speak to my fellow non-readers wondering if the movie is worth their time.
The inevitable comparions to the Hunger Games franchise are appropriate, from the one girl against the world concept to the militant and violent dystopian America serving as setting. But, there is a more subdued nature to the world of Divergent which lends itself to slightly more nuance. Despite some very obvious pacing issues, Divergent is more technically sound than the first Hunger Games movie, and serves as a worthy first installment in a series which boldly already scheduled release dates for the sequels.
Set in a ruined Chicago following a decimating war, the remaining society is divided into five mutually exclusive groups called factions. As part of a coming of age ceremony, citizens have the ability to pick which faction they will spend the rest of their lives in, but are encouraged to follow the results of a test administered the day before. However, the test results for Tris (Shailene Woodley) place her in three different factions, making her “divergent.” Individuals like her are dangerous because they threaten the “harmony” of the factioned society. As she leaves her family by picking Dauntless (known for physical prowess and bravery), she must simultaneously come to understand what makes her different, while desperately trying to fit in with her chosen faction and avoid detection. If that sounds a bit complex, remember that I didn’t know any of this going into the film. Through some careful and necessary narration, combined with effective production design and costuming, the story itself is reasonably easy to follow.
Woodley leads the way with another extremely affecting performance in her young, but already impressive filmography. What makes her so effective here is that unlike Jennifer Lawrence, her emotional palette is much more subtle, and thus (for me at least) much more relateable. Unlike Katniss, Tris is far from sure of her physical and mental toughness. As we watch her gain her self-confidence throughout the film, there is a certain beauty in watching that sort of maturity, especially considering that it falls within the natural range of human emotion. So major props to Woodley for bringing this level of depth to a role that easily could have fallen prey to formula in the hands of a less gifted actress.
The supporting cast is passable, with Theo James (who would fit right in at a Franco family reunion) leading the way as Four, an enigmatic Dauntless leader with the perfect YA level of romantic mystery. And don’t worry ladies, he does take his shirt off for your enjoyment. Jai Courtney and Miles Teller also make worthy contributions to the story as antagonistic and egotistic characters, something both actors have much experience in. The best supporting performance however, belongs to Kate Winslet, who plays a devious Erudite (the “intelligent” faction, Slytherin anyone?) leader bent on helping her faction claim power. Unfortunately, her talent is criminally underused, as she only appears in three or four scenes, albeit memorable ones. Nonetheless, her skill and effort bring a further sense of legitimacy to the process.
Remember how all that shaky cam made The Hunger Games almost unwatchable? Well, there’s none of that in Divergent. Although similarly in 2D IMAX, the visual style here is much more expansive and rewarding. Maybe it’s my inherent bias toward movies that film in Chicago (I’m pretty sure that’s why I enjoyed The Dilemma), but regardless. the city looks beautiful in a very bizarre way as you see the decaying remnants of the Sears (ok, fine, Willis) Tower, the Hancock Tower, and especially Navy Pier, which lends itself to the best sequence in the whole movie. Relying more on practical effects, stunts, and more stationary camera work, the film is able to effectively shoehorn all the action into a visually stylish format.
But man oh man is there way too much action. The middle hour of the film is devoted nearly entirely to Tris’ training to become a full-fledged member of the Dauntless faction. This results in lengthy sparring montages, war games, train-hopping, fantastical fear-conquering dream sequences, etc. Given that the third act is predictably gun-filled, this makes for almost 90 minutes of simultaneous fear for our protagonists’ safety. This makes the pacing grind to a halt about halfway through, and towards the end, you begin to feel every single one of the far-too-many 139 minutes. I realize that it takes time to fully set up the world and the conflict for future films, but there was definitely some fat that needed to be trimmed.
It certainly won’t gain the kind of widespread cultural phenomenon status that the Hunger Games franchise has attained, but Divergent doesn’t feel like it’s aspiring to hard to be a copycat. It possesses a visual style unto its own, features a different (and more accessible) style of acting from our protagonist, and has some genuinely interesting plot points and contrivances. Judging from the hardcore fangirling going on around in the theater, it’s safe to say that fans of the books will love the film, and if you’re like me and haven’t taken to reading the books yet, know that Divergent‘s twist on the teen dystopian adventure is fresh enough to justify an enjoyable watch.
RYAN’s RATING: 2.5 Stars out of 4