Divergent - Review
Review by Rob Carnevale
GIVEN the global success of Veronica Roth’s book series, the makers of Divergent are undoubtedly eyeing a potential franchise to rival The Hunger Games. But while decent in places, this first chapter struggles to meet the high expectations surrounding it.
There are several reasons for this but first and foremost is just how derivative Neil Burger’s adaptation is, not just of other Young Adult novels (The Hunger Games included) but of films like Ender’s Game and The Matrix.
Second, the world the film is trying to create, a dystopian future ravaged by war in which the surviving members of one particular city are categorised into factions and controlled, lacks much to fire the interest (visually or mentally) and deprives the film of any tension.
And then there’s the characters themselves, who feel largely like genre stereotypes – from the special breakaway heroine to the moody love interest right through to the devious, power-hungry villain.
The story picks up as young Tris (Shailene Woodley) is tested to see which of the five factions – ranging from Abnegation (for the selfless), Erudite (for the intelligent) and Dauntless (for the brave) – she is best suited to, before being asked to choose which she’d prefer.
Tris, however, defies easy categorisation which means she is divergent and therefore a threat to society for being a free-thinker. But urged to keep this a secret, she opts to choose Dauntless, a daredevil group tasked with protecting the city, and begins her training always aware that the discovery of her status could be life-threatening.
The bulk of the film is taken up with Tris’s training, which finds her at odds with the Dauntless leader Eric (Jai Courtney) but mentored by the enigmatic Four (Theo James), who harbours his own secret and feelings for Tris. But it ends with a climactic battle in which Triis must protect the city from the threat posed by the power hungry Jeanine (Kate Winslet).
As complex or even exciting as some of this sounds, Burger’s film never really grips as it should – and that’s despite appealing performances from Woodley and James.
At close to two and a half hours, the director certainly has room to play with but struggles to balance the need to explain the intricacies of his world and his numerous characters with some emotional connection and forward drive. His eventual failure to do so becomes particularly evident during the film’s finale, which is nowhere near as tragic as it should have been given some of what happens.
There’s a lot of repetition too, with Tris’s training requiring lots of simulated fights and mental tests that have been used to similar effect in both The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game. It creates the feeling that something is needed to shake up this particular format to offer up something fresh and innovative. You could argue that Divergent suffers from following in so many other films’ wake.
But then there’s also a lack of genuinely colourful characters – something that cannot be said for The Hunger Games. Hence, while Woodley makes an appealing lead presence (combining the necessary determination with a vulnerability) and James smoulders in all the right ways, both are ill-served by a script that seems content to go through the motions without really requiring them to flex any serious acting muscles.
Supporting players such as Courtney’s Eric, Zoë Kravitz’s Christina and Miles Teller’s Peter aren’t sufficiently developed to offer any depth. And Winslet’s villain lacks the manipulative pleasure of Donald Sutherland in The Hunger Games.
Burger does deliver one or two decent set pieces but it’s difficult to assess how well Divergent will play to anyone not already in love with the books. After a somewhat indulgent, mostly self-serious and fairly generic first chapter, this doesn’t offer much to entice newcomers back for further instalments. It underwhelms more often than it impresses.
Running time: 139mins
UK Release Date: April 4, 2014