Director: Neil Burger
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo Jame
39mins; 12; KRS
We are in Chicago, the US, sometime in a post-apocalyptic future. The city has been destroyed by war; the survivors live in a fragile peace, having been divided into factions based on their personality.
There is: the governing faction Abnegation (the selfless, caring ones); Amity (the peaceful ones, many of them farmers); Candor (the honest ones); Dauntless (the brave ones, the protectors of the city) and Erudite (the intelligent ones, the scientists of the community, led by Jeanine Matthews, played with quiet menace by Kate Winslet).
Each year, all 16-year-olds are tested and given the opportunity to choose to stay within their faction or move on. Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior (Shailene Woodley), lives with her family within Abnegation and it is her time to be tested. Her results however, are inconclusive.
Her examiner notes the test does not quite determine which one faction Tris truly belongs to, making her a ‘Divergent’. This is clearly not a good thing, as Tris is encouraged to lie about the results.
Unsure of what this all means, Tris makes the painful choice to leave her family and join Dauntless, where she has to face, ahem, a daunting series of brutal tests under the eyes of faction leaders Four (a brooding Theo James) and the brutal Eric (a sneering Jai Courtney).
As Tris and her fellow recruits fight hard to remain within the faction, outside forces are plotting to destabilise the city by pitting factions against each other, and the young woman soon learns that those she befriends may be her enemy.
If all this sounds like it is treading familiar ground, you are correct, for as the story unfolded before me on the big screen, the thought that kept pinging in my head was Hunger Games.
The bare plot bones share significant similarities to the franchise headed by Jennifer Lawrence, not least its autocratic, futuristic backdrop; its young heroine thrown into a situation of combat for which she is initially unprepared, pitted against young people her own age; and the fact it is based on a series of popular young adult novels by Veronica Roth.
And yet the similarities end there. The material is not as strong, so Divergent inevitably suffers from said comparisons and never quite reaches the heady heights of Hunger Games, either in terms of storytelling and action or emotion.
The sense of danger, survival and horror so necessary to sustain the tension in a story such as this are severely lacking.
It starts promisingly with the representation of life in the city, with the different factions ostensibly living in harmony, the stark production design featuring imposing skyscrapers looming over the citizens and their colour-coded costume design (denoting the different factions), effectively setting the stage for proceedings.
The discovery of Tris’s status as a Divergent piques the interest, for it is a vital element of the plot. Yet, this is not quite expounded upon deeply. During the middle part of the film, with the focus on Tris’s training as she struggles to get ahead, the pacing flags somewhat.
The threats of expulsion from Eric, the taunts of former Erudite citizen Peter (Miles Teller) who has it in for Tris and the mild flirtations with Four (Theo Jones), slow things down and distract from the main story.
The action is solid, not least as we witness the athletic prowess enjoyed by the members of Dauntless. For why board a train when it is stationary, when it is so much more fun jumping on it as it hurtles by at breakneck speeds? And why use a front door, when you can leap from twenty stories up into a gaping hole hoping something will break your fall?
The story is told in a much too clinical fashion
And when, at last, the story kicks into gear the action picks up considerably, as the factions go into battle against one another; people’s loyalties are put to the test and the films finally shows us a bit energy.
What the film is also crucially missing is heart. The story is told in a much too clinical fashion. The budding romance between Tris and Four is a little stiff, and it is only in the fleeting moments between Tris and her mother Natalie (Ashley Judd) that we witness some real emotion.
Woodley is a remarkable talented actress, having made an astonishing debut opposite George Clooney in The Descendants a couple of years ago. She is a watchable and charismatic presence as Tris, and carries the role confidently, despite the film’s shortcomings. Divergent is the first in a trilogy – the next one is due for release in March next year - hopefully, it will diverge a little from the norm, and flex its character and action muscles to better effect.
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