It’s hard to say if the film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s successful YA franchise Divergent is a success. Compared to its predecessors, it’s light years better than Twilight but just can’t match the Jennifer Lawrence-fueled charisma of the Hunger Games films. In fact, it’s safe to say that, within the realm of already offered wannabes — The Host, Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures — it’s about par for the paltry course.
There’s nothing new here save the premise, and that too is an amalgamation of every dystopian trope tossed at a screen — silver or small — over the last three decades. We once again are faced with a plucky heroine out of place within her future-shock reality, a couple of boys she’s cow-eyed over, and a villain (Kate Winslet? Seriously?) who wants to undermine everything with a plan so shoddy it’s almost laugh-out-loud bad. Cue box office dominance?
Understanding this overwritten bit of claptrap takes some doing, but the basics are relatively easy to comprehend. Post-apocalypse, society has been divided into five separate, specialized classes. Abnegation are the service sector, and they also function as the government. Amity are agrarian — read: farmers — and they help feed the society. Erudites are the intellectuals, Candors are brutally honest, and the Dauntless act as protectors. When someone turns 16, they are tested and categorized (though they can choose to stay within their clan) and as long as they are not listed as “divergent” everything is cool. Divergent… is BAD!
Enter Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), whose family hopes she will choose to stay Abnegation. Instead, she turns to the Dauntless and begins her training. Oh, and she happens to be… Divergent. (Sshhhhhh!!! Don’t tell anyone…or there will be trouble.) Struggling at first through the surreal V.I. simulations which help locate her “fear centers,” the newly renamed “Tris” falls for a ripe slice of instructional hunky meat named Four (Theo James). He helps run inference against the more strident leader (Jai Courtney) of the Dauntless as well as the head of the Erudite (Winslet) who wants all Divergents destroyed. Yada… yada… yada. The end.
Considering the ample time spent on the decaying facade of future Chicago, as well as several major action scenes and those aforementioned immersions into bizarro-world virtual reality, you’d think director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) would have more than enough visual variables to play with. Divergent should be a combination of stirring eye candy and smart allegorical food for thought. Instead, it’s a mindless waste which wanders from idea to idea like it’s making things up as it goes along, the end result leaving both the ocular and the cranial starved. Sure, it sounds good, like an infomercial come-on, but it’s just a poorly conceived combination of youth coup rebelliousness, puppy romanticizing, and Orwellian authoritarianism.
While Ms. Woodley packs some of the same punch that made Jennifer Lawrence the industry’s current “it” girl, the source lets her down. She’s trying her hardest to sell this swill, but the half-baked ideas provided by Roth (watered down even further by screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor) can’t find the substance to support her. At least The Hunger Games is built on an despotic desire to keep nonconformity to a minimum. Here, the society is set up in such a way that the only possible problem is a proposed overthrow, which is where everything a badly miscast (or perhaps, could care less) Kate Winslet exists. As a baddie, she’s either over the top or in a trance.
Fans of the books may not care, as any chance of seeing their favorites illustrated in some place other than the theater of the mind will be welcome indeed. The uninitiated, on the other hand, will find Divergent‘s dystopia derivative, and dull. It betters Edward and Bella, but not by much.