Movie Review: Divergent

Oh my word, it’s almost May. Do I have some things to catch up on.

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Starring:
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet
Director:
Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless)
Rating: M
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Cynical mode activated. Here comes yet another Lionsgate young adult teen novel series stretched into more movies than is necessary for the sake of raking in extra money, following in the footsteps of Twilight and The Hunger GamesBrace yourselves, because Neil Burger‘s Divergent is a post-apocalyptic tale with a female protagonist, a radically restructured dystopian society with distinct costumes that indicate moral allegiance and a bit of romance thrown in. Now where have we seen that before?

Cynical mode deactivated. I was introduced to the Divergent saga (written by the surprisingly young Veronica Roth) much the same way as I was The Hunger Games – an interested sibling and the promise of a “next big thing”. Yes, in a way that makes me a part of Lionsgate’s ideal demographic, who still isn’t over the buzz generated by The Hunger Games – I mean, just look at the first Divergent trailer and compare it to any of the HG ones. But I am a notoriously appalling reader of fiction and yet I got through the first Divergent book relatively painlessly. Why? Because there is more to this series than a checklist of popular modern elements – its themes go deeper – or at least more intimate – than politics, into a more personal ideological space. Its futuristic Chicago is divided into five factions, each one requiring its members to adhere to a single prevailing virtue (Knowledge, courage, selflessness, kindness and honesty respectively). I’d easily recommend the book, for the most part, to anyone interested in its concept. The movie? Not quite as much. It’s certainly watchable, and it gets several things right, but it has issues.

A quick synopsis for those without the faintest idea what the story of Divergent is about: Tris, our strong-willed protagonist (the clearly talented but recently unlucky Shailene Woodley of The Descendants fame) is a member of the Abnegation faction, who value selflessness above all else. When she comes of age she must decide, like all other teenagers, the faction in which she is most suited to spend the rest of her life. A hallucinogenic test helps determine her aptitude for alternative faction life, but her results are inconclusive, making her a potential “Divergent”. Being this way is supposedly extremely dangerous and finding out exactly why makes up most of the thrust of the plot. The rest of it comes from Tris’ relationships with the members of Dauntless, the faction she chooses to join in order to hide her unique status.

South African Neil Burger is no weak director, as his previous work has shown, and his ability to replicate Veronia Roth‘s vision for the look and feel of each faction is spot on. Of course, it is based on Roth’s native Chicago, so the task was perhaps easier than most sci-fi adaptation directors are afforded, but I was astonished at how much my reading imagination matched the screen settings nonetheless. Dauntless, in particular, where most of the action takes place, is appropriately grimy and yet awe-inspiring. The costume designers and the enthusiastic supporting actors, ranging from Aussie Jai Courtney to soon-to-be-Mr-Fantastic Miles Teller, add to this successful adaptation.

However, most of said supporting actors have had their roles cut down substantially from the book. Without indulging in spoilers, one important character has had all complexity and conflict removed in favour of being a smiley cartoon, another seems to turn from goodie to baddie without any warning or build-up while a third is literally never pointed out on screen. Yes, I probably sound like “that guy” at this point, but these screenplay choices severely dilute Tris’ character development and the direction of the saga going forward, as do some messy scene changes that aim to streamline the plot but might actually end up confusing newcomers.

That Tris and her adventures are still watchable is a testament to Shailene Woodley, whose central performance succesfully flits from insecurity to decisiveness under pressure and brings genuine intensity to some of the film’s bigger emotional moments. She gives Jennifer Lawrence‘s Katniss a run for her money and she is ably assisted by male lead Theo James as the enigmatic Dauntless trainer Four. Any fan indignation at his potentially misplaced casting looks-wise is washed away by his assured and charismatic performance. Kate Winslet is on point as bureaucrat Jeanine, right down to her extra weight, and she arguably makes the character even more interesting than in Roth‘s pages. Then there is the primarily electronic soundtrack, primarily assembled by Junkie XL, which turns out to be a real surprising treat and goes some way to making up for the general lack of action Divergent presents when compared to recent blockbusters of a similar nature.

I’m giving Divergent the benefit of the doubt, as it certainly has the ingredients to improve as the story moves on to bigger things. As far as first-up novel trilogy adaptations go, The Hunger Games this is certainly not, but Burger and co have done enough to keep me intrigued about where things are going next.

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Woodley is powerful, factions look great, unexpectedly awesome soundtrack
Bad:
Incredibly dumbed down supporting cast, over-streamlined plot
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3.5 VsG !

One response to this post.

  1. Your verdict is rather liberal! I couldn’t stand this slice of drivel. It was actually insulting to watch, from the concept to everything else. Well written review nonetheless!

    Reply

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