March 17, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “Divergent”


DIVERGENT:  Watch It At Home – Not Hungry Enough

The film of DIVERGENT, even more than Veronica Roth’s YA-franchise source novel, is determined to resemble The Hunger Games as much as any movie can that’s telling a different story with a different set of characters.  (Not an illogical thing to do, considering that the two Hunger Games movies thus far have taken in over $1.5 billion worldwide.)  Like most imitations, it doesn’t measure up to the original.

Once again, we’re in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic near-future (specifically in Chicago this time), where a regimented social system oppresses the masses.  This time, instead of districts separated by geography, we get Factions, organized by their world-view and personalities, its members limited in their career paths:  the kindly, agricultural Amity, the self-effacing civil servants of Abnegation, the intellectual Erudite, the honest-to-a-fault Candor, and the brute guards and soldiers of Dauntless.  (Then there are the Factionless, this society’s version of Untouchables–and not the Elliot Ness kind.)  At the age of 16, no matter what faction one may have been born into, all citizens are given an aptitude test to determine the one that suits them best, but they can then choose any faction they prefer–after which they’re stuck for the remainder of their lives.

As in Hunger Games, the Chosen One who will blow the system up is a teen girl, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley).  Although born into Abnegation as the daughter of Natalie (Ashley Judd) and Andrew (Tony Goldwyn), her test shows that she has the forbidden combination of abilities that could qualify her for multiple factions:  Divergence.  Warned to keep that a secret, she chooses Dauntless–her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) chooses Erudite–and the rest of the story  (just the first part of a trilogy, naturally) is mostly concerned with her training in the Dauntless camp and gradual toughening (she gets a tattoo and renames herself the punchier “Tris”), until the last reel kicks off the inevitable revolution.

At every step, director Neil Burger and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor (certainly under the direction of studio Summit/Lionsgate, which just so happens to be the home of the Twilight and Hunger Game franchises) do what they can to make Divergent into Hunger Games Jr.  In a presumed effort to attract teen boys as well as girls, the icky romantic part of the story between Tris and studly, sensitive Dauntless trainer Four (Theo James) is placed more in the background, while the need not to alienate youngsters (and parents) have toned down the violence to safely PG-13 levels–so much so that one barely gets a sense of the punishment Tris is supposed to be going through as one does in the book.  The Erudite villainess Jeanine (Kate Winslet, cashing a paycheck) has had her part beefed up so that it’s more comparable to Donald Sutherland’s evil Panem President.

Part of the reason Divergent falls short is due to Roth’s original story.  The struggle to pass exams and be declared a full member of Dauntless hardly compares to the kill-or-be-killed intensity of Hunger Games, and Roth’s plotting isn’t nearly as imaginative as Suzanne Collins’s.  Divergent is, by all measures, a more superficial thrill ride even at its best, and the plot development that takes over its last half-hour is perilously close to unintentional comedy.  But the script is no help.  Even though the movie runs (a long) 140 minutes, it squeezes almost all the supporting characters down to nothing, especially Tris’s fellow initiates Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Peter (Miles Teller) and Al (Christian Madsen).  It’s particularly sad to see Teller so minimized, considering the chemistry he had with Woodley in The Spectacular Now, and the talent he showed for ruthlessness in Sundance’s Whiplash.  The adults, including Maggie Q as a sympathetic Dauntless and Jai Courtney as the mean Eric, have little to do as well.  A lot of the character scenes that enriched Tris in the book are, if not gone, so diminished as to have little impact.

The filmmaking is unexciting.  Burger’s visualization of Roth’s various faction locations, as photographed by Alwin H. Kuchler, designed by Andy Nicholson, and costumed by Carlo Poggioli, is drab and unengaging.  We spend most of the movie at Dauntless, and it’s presented as little more than a place of shadows and khaki–not up to the look of Gary Ross’s original Hunger Games, let alone the upgrade Francis Lawrence gave to Catching Fire.  Burger never gets much of a rhythm going in the action sequences, and they’re burdened by the melodramatic twists Roth threw into her equivalent of the last reel.

Shailene Woodley is a very fine actress, as she’s showed in The Descendants and Spectacular Now, and she gives Tris the requisite mix of determination and vulnerability.  She knows what to do with a quip when she’s given one, although the nearly humorless Divergent rarely does.  But Tris’s real competition here isn’t from the other Dauntless initiates:  she’s essentially going head-to-head with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, and that’s not a battle anyone is going to win at this moment in movie history.  Woodley simply doesn’t have Lawrence’s ability to convey an imminent boil taking place just below her skin, or her air of restless, sometimes heedlessly self-destructive intelligence.  Placed almost side by side, Tris can’t help but look a little bland.

Divergent will make a mint–the sequels haven’t just been planned, their opening dates have already been scheduled–and fans of the book will be relieved to find no major changes from the story they want to see on the big screen, and the characters played by an estimable cast.  A crossover audience, though, may be more difficult to come by this time around.  If Divergent had to be put into a faction, it would be Merely Competent.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."