Yet another movie based on a bestselling young adult novel. Can this one set itself apart? I was willing to let a lot slide, considering the message in this film is fairly harmless. But after discussing the film with someone who had read the book, I realised this wasn’t just a case of poor adaptation.
The story’s concept is “what if the world worked according to this random rule”, peppered with characters and general melodrama. This type of story is something I see a lot of in fanfiction. They often sound lame and contrived, but it’s all in good fun, and is (when done well) an experiment to explore other aspects of the characters and relationships of existing franchises. When movies get made out of these “what if” scenarios, you’re almost always in for a long intro with a lot of reading and/or voice-over exposition. Divergent is no exception.
In Divergent the random rule is that post-apocalyptic Chicago is divided up into five “factions”, not based on ideologies, but scientifically separated personality types. I can’t remember their names, but you have the smart ones (scientists), the honest ones (lawyers – ironically), the hippies (I forget their personality type, but they were the farmers), the dauntless (the warriors) and the selfless (the government, again ironically). Our hero, Katniss 2.0, is born into selfless, but at her graduation she decides to switch to dauntless. The only problem is that she is actually a divergent, someone with all personality types.
When it takes that long to explain the concept, never mind the plot, you know this has to be based on some thick literature. According to my source, however, the book doesn’t explain the factions much better than the movie. In order for us to accept the premise, we need to be thrown into a world that, while ridiculous to us, exists inside its own logic bubble. With Divergent you have so many questions you never get to the point where you can settle down and just enjoy the movie. Where, for example, do the engineers go? What about a welder, or doctors? Knowledge or selfless? What about a surgeon? Don’t you need just a little “dauntless” to cut into someone? The premise is such a hard sell that perhaps the filmmakers decided it was better to just leave it alone.
Let us ignore the rule of the world, and focus on the plot and characters. Shailene Woodley plays Tris, and does as good as can be expected with the material. I’m looking forward to her work in The Fault in Our Stars, so perhaps I’m biased, but I think she has great potential. Tris does have some interesting moments, particularly towards the end. She actually gets to be a little brutal in one scene. Again, I initially thought her personality was better explored in the book, but not so much, it turns out. She has to face her fears at one point, and they come as a total surprise. One in particular, a fear of rape from her sweetheart Four, is such a random inclusion I felt cheated by the lack of explanation.
Theo James plays the trainer/love interest Four, and you can’t help feeling bad for him. His character has absolutely no personality beyond the “dark, brooding, but underneath a nice guy” archetype. He does a decent job of delivering his tragic backstory, and it is by no means cringeworthy. Their chemistry isn’t sparkling, but it’s not DOA either. Or maybe I was asleep by that point.
None of the other characters were memorable. Kate Winslet is in this for some reason, and she is woefully underused. Her character is basically the only part of the movie that has plot. She plays a corrupt “smart faction” leader, plotting shenanigans.
Here we come to the main problem with the film: there isn’t any plot. There is an ending with plot, but 90 percent of the movie is just her training to be dauntless. Disclaimer time! I’m a fan of movie trilogies. When I go into a film like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I know I’m going in to see one third of one arch of a larger franchise with possible spin-offs. Stuff still happened in that movie though. This feels like the first chapter of a book, not the first third of a trilogy.
Divergent is a well-meaning movie, and it looks great in some outdoor scenes. Tris is a good main character, and while the script is weighted down by the core premise being so contrived, it’s not bad either. If you’re a great fan of the books, maybe this is for you. For anyone else, at least wait to see if the rest even gets made, otherwise you’re left with one hell of a cliffhanger.