Given the critical and commercial failures of various projects that Hollywood studios wants to be the next Twilight like The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and the recent Vampire Academy, the next logical step that they seem to be taking is to forget Twilight and find the next Hunger Games. There are plenty of dystopian YA novels to choose from and they’re already releasing The Giver and Maze Runner, whose trailers are available right now. So, with that mindset we get Summit Entertainment’s follow-up to their massively successful Twilight franchise, and that will be Divergent, based on the book series of the same name written by Veronica Roth.
The story takes place in a post-war, walled-off Chicago; everyone is divided by factions that are determined by their personality traits. There is the Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Erudite (the intelligent), Amity (the peaceful) and Candor (the honest). In comes Beatrice, later just referred to as Tris (Shailene Woodley), a young woman born into an Abnegation family, who takes an aptitude test to determine which faction she belongs to. It turns out though that she fits with three factions: Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless; this is very rare and is known as Divergent, which is not a good thing in this society (for some reason). However, during a ceremony she has to choose which faction to join (which kind of makes the aptitude test pointless), and she decides to go with Dauntless. After going to the Dauntless compound, she makes some friends and some enemies, as she trains to be the best of the best. Through some convoluted storytelling, Tris finds herself in the middle of a war between the Erudite leader, Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and the Divergents. Or something like that.
As snarky as that synopsis was, the film was surprisingly not terrible. Granted, it’s still not very good, but all things considered, it is better than expected. There are some elements that are very well done. The effects are good, the look of the worn-down Chicago looks interesting, and there are some genuinely good moments throughout the film. The best part is the acting, especially Shailene Woodley. She carries the film incredibly well, and the supporting cast does great (though Miles Teller seems miscast). It’s almost the acting alone that made me somewhat invested in the film.
The film suffers from two severe problems. One is that the film does not work as a dystopian fiction. What makes good dystopian fiction work is that there is an underlying horror about the society that is made even scarier by the fact that it is accepted for the most part. Using The Hunger Games as an example, that film works because you have a classist society that is sends young people into a deathmatch organized by the oppressive Capitol. That is scary, that makes sense (yeah, certain details are iffy, but there is some logic in there). This film is essentially high school cliques, but placed in a post-apocalyptic world, and it simply doesn’t work. And the fact that the real plot doesn’t start kicking in until about ninety minutes into the film, spending too much time on world building that only goes to show how this world doesn’t work if you put any thought into it.
Now for the second problem. This world makes absolutely zero sense! Who thought it would be a good idea to separate people by personality traits? Also, it is shown that certain factions are responsible for certain jobs. So, you have Dauntless, who protect the city, and Amity, who are mostly farmers and Abnegation help the faction-less (essentially, homeless people who did not fit into any faction, or got kicked out). OK, so what does the Candor do? Their thing is that they are brutally honest. So, what do they do all day? What jobs do they perform? How does this economy work? Also, why is being a Divergent a bad thing? Yeah, they have aspects of multiple factions (which, theoretically, most people should) and they don’t conform. OK? So? Why is that a problem? Why are they a threat? Why do Divergents need to be informed that they are Divergents, couldn’t the test holder simply withhold that information and manually input a faction for the person (which is exactly what happened to Tris, the person who gave her the test, told her that she manually put in Abnegation as her result)? Also, how is the technology here developed? I know you have super smart people working, but where are the resources coming from? How are they getting the technology to look into people’s mind like they’re watching TV? Also, this city has vehicles. Who made those vehicles? Who repairs them? How do they know how to repair them? What does the vehicle run on, gas? Where does the gas come from? Also, if the city is walled off, how does population control work? After a while, it’s gonna start getting crowded. What would the city do? I could go on, but I think you get the point.
You know, it’s really ironic that a film called Divergent, a film about identity, going against the grain, being a nonconformist and being true to yourself, it is so derivative of various other dystopian stories and it relies too heavily on YA clichés. There’s an obligatory love story that feels rushed. Many of the scenes where Tris is training with Dauntless feels like it was taken right out of Harry Potter or Ender’s Game. It’s a shame because there are a few brief moments that feel truly inspired, but for the rest of the film, I just felt like I’ve seen all this before, and the supposed dystopia doesn’t offer anything interesting to think about.
Is Divergent the new Hunger Games? Well, simply put, no. Despite some of the shortcomings of The Hunger Games franchise, it is still held to a high standard, getting good, writers, directors and actors to put the film together with care, and unfortunately, as hard as Divergent tries, it does not reach the quality of The Hunger Games. For the ones who are as forgiving as I try to be, the acting is good enough to keep you invested in the story and characters. If you care enough about these characters, you will be curious as to where the story is going, and as snide as I was about the world building, I wasn’t mad as I watched the film, just a bit frustrated. If you’re a fan of the book, then go ahead and check it out, though perhaps at a matinee price. If you’re not a fan of the books (which I haven’t read by the way) then this film is, at best, a rental. If you do end up enjoying the movie then good for you, there is a sequel already set to release next year. I will give the sequel a shot, though I can’t imagine there would be much improvement. So, in the end, if you have two hours and twenty minutes to waste, I guess there are much worse things you could be watching.
Side Note: Interesting observation I had as I watched the film, Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller worked together on The Spectacular Now, and Miles Teller is in this film. Also in this film is Ansel Elgort, who plays Tris’ brother, Caleb, and he also stars opposite Shailene Woodley in the upcoming film, The Fault in Our Stars. No point to make here, just an observation. Also, why does Jai Courtney in this film look like rapper Macklemore? That was weird. Oh, and one final thing, as someone who has a fear of heights, I found the portrayal of acrophobia to be completely ridiculous in this film. Tris’ trainer and love interest, Four (yes, that’s his name, and the explanation is just as stupid), played by Theo James, supposedly has a fear of heights. We learn this when he reveals it to Tris, as they climb an incredibly tall ladder! He is constantly in situations that would makes someone like me freeze and hang on for dear life, while he just sweats a bit more than usual. Apparently, for Four an irrational fear of heights is just a mild annoyance.