Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer
Plot: In a world torn apart by a brutal war, humanity is split into factions to keep the peace, each faction designated by personality types. Problems arise, when Tris (Woodley) discovers she is Divergent, someone who belongs in multiple factions.
Imagine one of those trivial personality tests on Facebook. Now, imagine that test if it were a questionnaire that chose the path the rest of your life would take. That is the principal concept of Divergent and it raises some good questions that Burger has some fun exploring.
It makes for a terrific opening to this movie. Right from the off, the audience find themselves asking important questions about this universe and their own identity. Shailene Woodley’s Beatrice – later to be rechristened Tris – is a girl about to take this life-consuming personality quiz and we see the pressure begin to take hold of her. Her family try to guide her to be her own person, yet at the same time their secret desire to see her go down their preferred lifestyle isn’t as secret as they think it is. As a result, when Tris finally makes her decision – like any good personality test, a last minute option is offered to pick which faction you personally want to be in – it sounds like her decision is one made out of rebellion, and a refusal to conform, rather than an informed decision. What else would a teenager do after all? The idea of a split decision at the age of sixteen deciding the rest of your life is a terrifying one at the best of times and that entire scene is both packed with entertaining suspense, but also a reflection of your own life. Are you at university or in a particular job, because it is what you wanted to do (or thought you wanted to do), or what your parents and society manipulated you to do? On a lesser scale, it is like filling out a form and reaching that one section, where your current situation doesn’t apply to any of the categories listed below. Is your identity wrong because of this? Are you normal? Divergent plays with all of those questions and creates this interesting character of Tris, who drifts between societies, not quite fitting in with anyone. It is also interesting to see these characters wear their one-sided personalities like a badge of honour or a sense of belonging and Tris is punished for being three-dimensional and complicated as a character. It feels like the moral of X-Men, where being different gets you segregated, yet with Divergent, being different is being what the audience considers a normal, functioning human being. This analytical approach to identity makes the first twenty minutes of Divergent one of the most interesting modern Sci-Fis I have seen in quite a long time.
Sadly, the first twenty minutes raises that bar too high for the other two hours of the film. As soon as Tris commits to a faction, the daring and fearless Dauntless, the action almost hits the brakes entirely. We get over an hour of a glorified training sequence. A leader board to stay in Dauntless is set up, a list of douchebag fellow students and teachers are introduced and Tris has to navigate a series of physical and psychologically challenges to prove her identity (that same identity she still isn’t convinced is actually hers). The problem is clear: Divergent wants to be a Tween series. I really didn’t want to draw comparisons between this and Hunger Games, but I am going to have to. Yes, the Hunger Games started as a young adult franchise, especially with the producer-pleasing opening movie, but, in my opinion, the franchise is as successful as it is, because it managed to break away from its young adult origins and mature into something in its own right. Much like the characters, Divergent is ironically a film struggling with its own identity. If the material was allowed space to breathe, this would have the potential to be an astonishingly fresh, modern Sci-Fi. As it is, the movie is weighed down by the little things: the teenage girl soundtrack, the high school setting and the stereotypical characters we have already seen before… The identity debate just manages to break through enough to keep the interest going (I like the symbolism of tattoos here – another common split decision with permanent effects). Thankfully, the ending delivers what we wanted to see about an hour earlier. Kate Winslet’s villain is allowed to reveal her evil plot and the universe is explored better. Divergents are rounded up in a fashion, not dissimilar to the Jewish in World War Two, bringing back the hard-hitting edge that this Sci-Fi desperately needs. The action is also very good, Shailene Woodley very comfortable with the fighting and bad-ass quotes. It isn’t quite natural enough yet, but promising enough to give the sequel a chance.
With the up and down quality of Divergent, the cast end up anchoring the story. Shailene Woodley is phenomenal, which is handy, because she steals most of the screen-time, because of the way the book tells the story. She is a character forced to bury her emotions and suppress her true self, something that Woodley proves herself capable of doing well. Her eyes are incredible at portraying exactly what the director needs her to, and, in return, Burger directs her image to benefit the character. She starts off in a meek, grey costume, reflecting her upbringing, but slowly she transforms into the fiery character she ends up as. Her hair is let down, her features harden… physically and emotionally, Woodley is allowed a terrific character arc that puts her in direct contest with Katniss Everdeen for Lead Heroine of the year. Theo James is also strong, as the only other real lead character. He is let down slightly by the young adult themes (handsome, brooding love interest screams at the audience the moment he walks on-screen), but he does his job well enough to rise above the material. Everyone else is frustratingly in the distance. Maggie Q cameos, dropping exposition here and there. Ray Stevenson rarely comes into play. Ansel Elgort has an interesting character, but he isn’t played with well enough. They are the kind of characters that you know are being saved for the future movies, meaning that their job is mainly making you like them enough to care about them when their character arcs open up enough in the future. At the very least, they succeed in doing just that.
Final Verdict: Divergent is more promising than good, but the movie is interesting and entertaining enough to make this a series to look out for.