It’s hard to go into a film like Divergent without some sort of expectation. It’s another in a long line of post-apocalyptic young adult adaptions that seem to be all the rage. It has been pushed by Summit Entertainment as their replacement for the Twilight films. The cover of the book it was based on has a logo that is indistinguishable from The Hunger Games from a distance. And on top of that all, I’m a dude in his twenties, which is certainly not the target audience for any of those films. With all that being said, any reader might expect a scathing teardown of the genre and the baffling mainstream appeal it holds to millions of young people. I’m pleased to surprise both readers and myself in saying that Divergent is an engaging sci-fi action movie with old school sensibilities and an interesting world to explore.
There has been a great war of some fashion and now the residents of Chicago have organized themselves into five factions based on personality traits. Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) is born into Abnegation, the faction based on selflessness. She comes of age and discovers that she is Divergent, possessing personality traits from several factions instead of just one. This makes her dangerous, as she is uncontrollable by the rigid rules of her society. She chooses to join with the courageous Dauntless, undergoes their strict training regimen, and eventually unravels a sinister plot put on by intellectual Erudite leaders.
It is when Tris (as she renames herself) joins with the Dauntless that the film really kicks into high gear. The faction makes their home in a series of empty caverns and warehouses, which may be a stylistic choice, but it reminds me of any number of straight to VHS science fiction films from 30 years ago. The entire movie brings me back like that actually. The middle section is chocked full of what might as well be training montages, and there seems to be an abundance of practical effects work and real sets instead of unnecessarily intricate CGI backgrounds and inhuman stunt work. The script goes to great lengths to subtly remind you of each character’s upbringing. The members of Dauntless are simplistic in their speech, the main Candor representative is wise cracking, and the members of Erudite are cold and calculating. These kind of things go a long way towards establishing the world as a real place, which is something that these young adult films have had a hard time doing, but Divergent pulls off with ease.
Being in Dauntless means having to overcome your innermost fears, and here is another area where Divergent could have easily given in to its PG-13 rating and toned things down from the source material. Instead, we have characters experiencing and dealing with having to kill innocents and sexual assault. Characters die from gunshots to the head, and their deaths are justified by the plot and its stakes, unlike something like The Hunger Games where the entire ordeal is presented as a vicious bloodsport. It’s all heavy duty stuff for a movie being hyped mostly by Hot Topic and MTV. The action in the film is also uncharacteristically thrilling, bringing enough heavy hits and one liners to satisfy any dude who gets dragged into seeing it by their significant others.
The only facet of the movie that kept me from believing that the projectionist had slipped in a spruced up Cynthia Rothrock picture in place of my modern day film was the music. The film is book-ended by awful, high pitched pop monstrosities that feel completely out of place with the rest of the film’s vibe, almost as if a producer just assumed that this was another Hunger Games film by default and sought out music for that. There is also of course the token romance between Tris and Four (Theo James), which only delves into exploitative territory in one brief moment and is otherwise played pretty realistically.
I’m not really sure if Divergent will appeal to The Hunger Games/Twilight crowd that it’s so clearly aimed at. It’s intensely focused on being a movie, not a crazy epic. It brought me back in many ways to the types of movies I most enjoy, action packed flights of fancy that the tween set have most likely only experienced through skits on Family Guy or Robot Chicken. The story is standard fare, but it’s told well and naturally leads into the sequels that have already been placed into preproduction. It creates a logical world that you want to return to instead of an allegorical one filled with grimdark imagery. It is surprising in its qualities considering its origins as an also-ran, and I can’t help but feel that it will hold up better than anything surrounding it when people look back at their teenage obsessions.
In Theaters: March 21, 2014
Runtime: 139 min
Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Zoë Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney
Genre: Sci-Fi Action
Distributor: Summit Entertainment, Lionsgate