It wouldn't be March at the multiplex without another dystopian YA adaptation.
Critic's Grade: B
At first glance, Divergent would seem to be riding on the coattails of The Hunger Games. Here’s another dystopian YA novel-turned-wannabe blockbuster, with another rising star—Shailene Woodley, in for Jennifer Lawrence—at the center. But this movie adaptation proves there’s more than one way to ride this wave. The simple storyline blooms under the direction of Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless), who captures science-fiction appeal with monochrome color schemes and sublime pans of a desolate, war-ravaged Midwest. Author Veronica Roth wrote Divergent while still in college—and probably right after reading Ender’s Game—and she brings together the overthrow of an oppressive, futuristic government and a freshman-year identity crisis.
The opening shots show a dystopian Chicago divided into “factions” of like-minded citizens, expected to play specific roles to maintain a peaceful, functioning metropolis. Woodley plays Beatrice from the faction “Abnegation”—the plainly clothed nurturers responsible for the elderly citizens and factionless hobos. “Dauntless,” the leather-fitted warriors who protect the city, catch Beatrice’s eye as they sprint through the city like steampunk parkour runners. Now 16, Beatrice is faced with familiar teen angst as she debates whether to stay or to go in search of another faction. Not surprisingly, she opts to go out of state, get a tattoo, and date an older guy.
After being inducted into her new faction, Beatrice—who becomes “Tris”—learns that she and the rest of the initiates will face daily review to prove physical and mental prowess. The girls and boys also learn they’ll share a hostel-like dormitory, with coed bathrooms to boot (cue nervous giggles). The common area is one classic rock poster shy of a frat house: Tame Impala plays in the background, long tables are loaded with blackened hamburger patties and cups are collectively slammed on the table for announcements. However entertaining, these lengthy scenes don’t provide much useful characterization, bogging down a movie that’s already two and a half hours.
Despite Roth’s thinly developed characters, Woodley is enchanting as the young, selfless heroine: She pulls at her sleeves in pubescent awkwardness and maintains a solemn expression, free of any coquettish pout. When she calls her brother to action as one faction rises to erase another, her eyes flash with indignance. “Faction before blood, right?” she spits into his unsupportive face. Though her love interest, Four (Theo James, who looks like some in-vitro love child of James Franco and Paul Walker), isn’t any remarkable surprise, their relationship sets a refreshing example for a young target audience. Tris is in control, and Four is there with her permission.
Divergent is enjoyable because it isn’t trying too hard. Conceptually, it employs elements from Harry Potter, G.I. Jane and Gattaca. Visually, Burger offers a memorable take on the post-apocalyptic landscape without overdosing on CGI. And there’s just enough here to excite the mothers or older cousins who end up at the movie with their young charges, as in one scene atop a decommissioned ferris wheel. As Four and Tris look out over a dilapidated carnival, the camera glances to his hand on her hip for an appreciated, steamy millisecond.