Let’s just get this out of the way. Divergent is not a good movie. And before you start lobbing accusations that YA adaptations never get a fair shake, know that the problem here isn’t that the film is aimed at teens. The issue is that the script, and presumably the source novel, are incredibly dumb.
Post-war Chicago is a fractured place. It’s by design though as the survivors created a plan to ensure the people would never fight again. How? By crafting a system guaranteed to lead to war.
Basically, everyone is born into one of five factions. Erudite is for brainiacs who look down their noses at those around them. Candor is for those who always tell the truth, a characteristic that we’re told (with a straight face) makes them the best lawyers. Dauntless are the parkour-loving punks who run and jump all over town while learning how to protect it from the possible threats beyond the great fence that surrounds the city. Amity are the peaceful farmers, a group apparently most notable for always being happy. Finally, Abnegation consists of the selfless, grey-wearing folk who give up mirror time in exchange for running the government.
Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) is Abnegation born, but her heart belongs with the free-runners so she chooses Dauntless and changes her name to Tris. Her test results were inconclusive though, an outcome known as Divergent and something she has to keep secret. This essentially means she has varied interests and common sense enough to realize that an illusion “isn’t real.” That’s it. Seriously. This is what makes her not only stand apart from the herd, but it’s also enough for those in power to want her dead. Because she can multitask.
Some thoughts on this.
Where are the sanitation workers? The engineers? The construction workers, teachers, clothes makers, electricians, artists, firemen, bakers, doctors, postal worker, IT support, lifeguards, exterminators? None of these jobs are mentioned, and none of the other five seem to allow room for these duties. If those in Candor only speak the truth, does that mean everyone else is a liar? How is that an entire faction, and why are there so many lawyers anyway? No one’s filing lawsuits, there’s no currency of any kind, why have one fifth of the population be lawyers? Can no one but Dauntless climb or run? Can you only be happy if you’re picking vegetables? Erudites are book smart, something we know because they literally sit in a glass tower and read books, but what are they actually doing for society?
And what is the real threat of the Divergent? Is it really as simple as their ability to think outside the box? If we’re being honest, Tris isn’t even very good at most things, something made evident in her multiple failed fights during Dauntless training. Again and again elsewhere we see her beat a test or challenge, but each time she does so either by simply acknowledging it’s an illusion or by doing something fairly obvious like block a pipe of running water or stop a moving wall with the only object available to her. She doesn’t do a single impressive or exceptional thing, and while I’d cheer a YA film for not making its main character “special” Divergent repeatedly tells us that Tris is just that, remarkably special, but it repeatedly fails to show us why.
And then there are the nonsensical rules. At some point in your teen years you’re given a test that determines which faction you should be, but the test is followed by a ceremony where you either accept that result or choose the one you truly feel fits you best. This is done by cutting yourself and dripping your blood into the corresponding bowl – water, burning coals, asparagus, and so on – and it comes with the knowledge that there’s no going back. After this day you can never again switch to a different faction. Hell, you can’t even go home again. Why? Because.
Worse, if you leave your faction at any point after the confirmation you become a member of, wait for it, the factionless. This is the 74th aspect of the plot setup that makes zero sense. The basic idea behind the faction system is simply that a populace whose attention is focused in one area is less likely to realize their lives suck and then try to rise up and do something about it. So why have a rule mandating people become factionless and therefore homeless? Is this not creating an unstable and potentially disruptive mob? Give them something to do… this is the entire point of your factions!
World-building isn’t an exact science, but there are a few areas where a movie (or book) really needs to ensure success. First and foremost is believability. Not in the sense that magic powers or alien species aren’t real, but instead it’s important that the world simply make sense even by its own logic. The Hunger Games, probably the most comparable YA franchise, works because the districts are distinct, clearly divided, and enforced by military power. You believe that the disparate people would let themselves be subjugated for a while before eventually reaching a breaking point. In Divergent though, there’s no reason to accept that people would be even slightly content with this structure or that it would even work to keep a society functioning beyond the first week.
The movie gets so much wrong with the setup, and I haven’t even touched on the actual plot yet. It’s pretty generic in that regard with Tris discovering a conspiracy that not only threatens her and other Divergents but also the entire Abnegation faction. If only she can find another Divergent to help… maybe the cool test-giver (Maggie Q) who first identified Tris’ Divergence and also freelances as a tattoo artist. Or hey, maybe Tris’ love interest Four (Theo James) with the giant, not at all obvious tattoo on his back featuring the symbols for all five factions?
The ensuing action beats, something that could have made up for the film’s very real detriments elsewhere, are weak and poorly staged. Gun fights always end with the “bad guys” standing in the open, away from cover, and of course being shot. There’s some mild excitement involving trains, but it’s a bit used so frequently it loses its power. The visual effects are mostly fine throughout with the exception of a zipline scene that looks a bit undercooked, but there’s nothing here that approaches a wow factor visually.
The Twilight films are equally dumb and even more insulting to girls, but they at least have an unintentional sense of humor about them that increases their entertainment value. The Hunger Games features a strong lead, an engaging setup, and some exciting set pieces. Beautiful Creatures, the best YA adaptation of the past decade, is smartly written and plays wonderfully with conventions.
Divergent’s only real plus though is its lead, Woodley. The rest of the cast (Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, and others) is fine, but Woodley, in all her atypical young Hollywood star gangliness, brings a fragile humanity to the role that’s absent in the script and story. She’s not a convincing fighter (or runner for that matter), but you feel for her and with her as she struggles with what’s happening. But Woodley power is not nearly enough to overcome a lead character who does pretty much nothing while seemingly accomplishing everything. Events don’t unfold naturally, they simply happen because the script dictates it. She’s a hero because we’re told she’s a hero.
There are so many idiotic and/or obvious plot turns, big and small, that the best reaction the film can hope to achieve from its audience is near constant head shaking. Fans of the books will probably eat it up, but with any luck the follow-up will tell a more entertaining story that convinces in its world, characters, and emotions.
The Upside: Shailene Woodley
The Downside: Incredibly dumb premise; nonsensical motivations; action beats are weak and poorly choreographed
On the Side: Summit has already greenlit and set a release date for the sequel.