And here we have the latest bestselling YA-novel adaptation, one that I’m getting a chance to see hot on the heels of the announcement that the third book in Veronica Roth’s trilogy will be split into two films, because money! Anyway, what’s it going to contain? Dull teenage female protagonist who’s apparently very important despite barely having a trace of personality? Check! A vague, unimaginative Sci-Fi/Supernatural element? Check! Hot hunky guy who’s defensive and boring yet somehow drawn to female lead? Check! He takes his shirt off to reveal his toned torso? Check! Love triangle situation? Absent! Well at least that’s something. Divergent does admittedly buck a few of the more unfortunate trends of such films but unfortunately still has little to recommend.
The world of Divergent doesn’t appear to make a great deal of sense. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, where the city is surrounded by a huge wall (is it protecting them or keeping them in? I’m uncertain). As dystopias go, this looks more pleasant than many. Everyone in the city is divided into five annoyingly named factions – Abnegation, Candour, Amity, Dauntless and Erudite – divided by their personalities. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) has grown up with her brother and parents in Abnegation, the supposedly ‘selfless’ faction that the others seem to perceive as being rather dull, a description she certainly matches. When they’re 16, everyone undergoes a test to determine which faction they are most suited to, but then they are allowed to choose in a sorting hat-type ceremony. Beatrice has a secret though, she isn’t suited to any faction, she’s (drum roll) divergent! When the time comes, she chooses Dauntless, the ‘warrior’ faction, meaning she’ll leave behind her family.
Now I really would have wanted to defend Shailene Woodley at this point, I adored last year’s The Spectacular Now, but she just doesn’t carry this movie at all. Beatrice’s mind is supposed to be so special it’s one of the main plot points but there’s just hardly anything to her character. Her love interest is a man called Four (Theo James), who’s personality is also a barely-there. He’s introduced when she first joins Dauntless as one of her trainers. This immediately adds a somewhat creepy student/teacher dynamic to their eventual relationship, accentuated by the fact that she’s supposed to be 16 and he looks about 30. They somehow develop some deep connection in between moments of him verbally abusing, and then later throwing knives at her (seriously). The only positive aspect to Four in the film’s first two acts seems to be that he’s not as horrible to the new recruits as his fellow trainer Eric (Jai Courtney), a stereotypical authoritative bully.
A huge amount of the film is taken up with sequences of Beatrice, now going by ‘Tris’ and her fellow new Dauntless members training under Four and Eric. Eric’s methods seem a bit idiotic at times, as they would surely result in half of his trainees hospitalised. There’s a sprinkling of good ideas amongst the training section, which involves physical and mental challenges, despite dividing the group into obvious ‘good guys’ vs ‘bullies’, a futuristic game of capture the flag is a highlight. In fact one of these bullies is played by Woodley’s The Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller, who by playing an antagonistic character avoids reminding you that you could have been watching the two of them in a much better movie. However, the training goes on for so long that it becomes quite wearing. Honestly I began to wonder if the film was building up the end of the training as the film’s climax as it was feeling so endless. In fact, the film’s main story doesn’t really come into play until after that happens. It seems to be a frequently repeated complaint that most of today’s blockbusters could do with losing 20-40 minutes but it hasn’t been as clear as this since The Lone Ranger.
There are a few other positives to Divergent however, the cinematography is impressive throughout as is the atmospheric score by Tom ‘Junkie XL’ Holkenborg with Hans Zimmer and vocals from Ellie Goulding. It goes into some darker places in its final act eventually giving Woodley a good moment or two. Of course, it then comes down to setting up the inevitable sequels, with the ending essentially promising that it’s about to get more interesting, but on the strength of Divergent, I’m not particularly keen to stick around and discover why.