Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet
It’s an unusual time for cinema. These days we either have a huge comic book property on approach, or somebody in Hollywood is seeking a young adult novel to adapt into a franchise. Everything in between usually involves remakes, sequels, 3D re-releases, and so on. Divergent is the next attempt in cashing in on the “Young Adult” trend hoping to find the same momentum as The Hunger Games. Does it succeed? In some ways yes, but for a vast amount of other reasons, Divergent doesn’t quite spark enough to catch the successful flame.
For those who are unaware, Divergent is based on the best selling novel by Veronica Roth. In the film, society is divided into different social classes to keep order. Those who are selfless and help others are classified as Abegnation. The peaceful minded are classified as Amity. The honest are placed into the society of Candor. Dauntless is the society of the brave, and they protect the territory. And finally those who are considered intelligent are placed in Erudite. Anyone who possesses more than one of these qualities is considered divergent and is branded a threat to the system.
Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice, who is a young teen from the Abegnation group. Woodley’s take on Beatrice never reaches the heights of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, but I’m not sure it was necessary for this story. Beatrice wants to be a part of the Dauntless tribe, and has dreamed of it since childhood.
The Dauntless gang are intense, fearless, and are trained to not be afraid of anything. Beatrice seems like a person who is easily broken in size and spirit, but most of the Dauntless crew discover dynamite comes in small packages. Also, bravery is not something to judge at face value. For me, Shailene Woodley definitely suffers a bit as coming off as a tough character but I think this might have been Neil Burger’s intention. Woodley has a vulnerable nature to her and it works well for making her seem out of place.
Once Beatrice gets older, she’s allowed to choose a faction of society she wants to join, but the society has a requirement for an aptitude test. This is one of the cooler elements of the film for me because we get dream-like moments that almost have Inception qualities. Beatrice goes under the test, and the results are inconclusive. She is a match for three factions, which are Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. Thus making her divergent.
Tori, played by the lovely Maggie Q warns her after administering the test about her results, and changes it on the computer to protect her. She warns Beatrice to stay Abegnation to protect herself and her family, but on decision day, Beatrice chooses Dauntless.
To me, this is what made the film more fun than most critics are giving it credit for. Once she becomes Dauntless, the film enters a story about self discovery. It becomes an adventure to see where this new path leads for her, even if it might be dangerous. We see Beatrice become free of the clutches of what society says she should be, and watch her make her own path away from her family. If Hunger Games is about survival, then Divergent is about freedom. To me, any teenager in some way has dreamed of this kind of escapism which makes it quite relatable for the younger audience.
The problem the film has though, is it spends too much time setting up her growth, that once the “divergent” conflict arises, it all feels rushed to reach the end. So much Inception like dream-world testing is done to protect her in the story, only for it take up 80% of the film’s plot. I haven’t read the novel though, so I’m not quite sure if the narrative was executed the same way in the novel.
One of the greater highlights for Divergent arguably is the film’s score, which makes even some of the film’s weaker elements feel much stronger. And who do we have to thank for this? Well, the film was composed by Junkie XL, with the assistance of the great Hans Zimmer. The sounds of JunkieXL are there, but you can hear the signature weight of Zimmer’s pounding signature sound, especially during the action sequences. Which if you are me, any film with Hans Zimmer involved is that much better.
Does Divergent have flaws? You bet it does, but I’m not exactly sure what critics were expecting. The film is definitely trying to jump on the Hunger Games bandwagon, but I never expected any different. They are very similar stories to a degree, especially the part where teens fight for a revolution. That said, the character arcs are different. Divergent is about identity and discovering your inner self.. Even if it does take up most of the film, leaving little room for the narrative to land on all fours, to me, this is one of the greatest aspects of growing up, and for that reason I appreciated the film.