I magine you were going to write a new YA series, but you really wanted to make an ass-load of cash and didn’t really give a shit about your characters or any of that pesky stuff. Well you’d probably just steal all the cool bits and pieces from the most popular science fiction and fantasy series that were made in the last five years. The result is Divergent; based on the bestselling YA trilogy by Veronica Roth (who is only 25 years old, which explains all of the hating I just did in this paragraph, it’s called jealousy people!), and directed by the more than capable Neil Burger (Limitless).
So anyway, it’s the year 20347678 and Chicago looks like Detroit now, with a giant fence around it. There was a war, naturally, but now everything is great because society has been reconstructed inside New Chicago and a strict policy of isolationism has apparently taken effect. Society is divided up like a deep dish pizza into 5 factions very similarly to Huxley’s Brave New World, however instead of Alphas and Epsilons we have a more high school based structure. There are the Amity (hippies), Candor (honor society), Dauntless (punk rock greasers), Erudite (nerds), and Abnegation (a bunch of mom-moms). Each faction does a job, except the only important ones seem to be the Abnegation, who are basically welfare workers; the Erudites, who do all the science; and the Dauntless (worst name ever), who are supposed to police the city and look fucking sick while doing it. To prove this point there is a scene were the Dauntless show up for Test Day (remember, this is a society based on high school) by jumping out of a train dancing and snapping their fingers like it’s West Side Story. The best way to describe Dauntless is to imagine that Lisbeth Salander had her own Hogwarts house… sick right!?
Our protagonist is Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), a 16 year old girl who has grown up being a total bore in Abnegation and is really craving some hot Dauntless action, but has to keep pretending she wants to be an Abnegation. The system of faction selection actually makes very little sense. There is this thing called Test Day which I guess you take at a certain age, but Beatrice’s brother Caleb is obviously older than her and takes his test on the same day… So I don’t really know when you take the test. Regardless, you take this test and it tells you which of the factions you should choose to be in on Choosing Day. Beatrice goes and takes the test, which as far as I can tell consists of hanging out with a German Shepherd in a K-Mart dressing room. She then wakes up and the test lady is all freaked out. Apparently some people are DIVERGENT. This means that Beatrice is so awesome she can’t conform to just any slice of deep dish pizza, she has to have them all. But apparently they kill you if you are Divergent so she has to keep it a secret.
On Choosing Day, you really just choose whichever fucking group you want to be in, so the test is pointless. It’s kind of like choosing your college major, but if you couldn’t go to your advisor and change it every three months, once you choose one you are in for life. The story tends to do this a lot, setting up stakes and then immediately taking them away. It’s as if the Sorting Hat said you are Gryffindor and instead you just walked over and sat down at the Slytherin table and gave Dumbledore the finger. Naturally, Beatrice picks the Dauntless, because if she didn’t there really wouldn’t be a story. The Dauntless are actually pretty god damn annoying; they just run around and scream and jump off of things like a bunch of assholes. They climb a lot too; I don’t get the YA fascination with climbing, but there is so much climbing and jumping that I kept waiting for my favorite spider-monkey Edward Cullen to show up.
They then go hang out at the Dauntless “Pit” which is basically half Dave & Busters, half The Matrix cave rave scene. Then there is a lot of punching and shooting and sexting, you know, average teen stuff. Beatrice has to change her name so she picks “Tris”, I assume because Katniss was taken already – that’s ok because the guy who makes her change her name is called “Four” , almost as if they forgot to plug in a new name when they were done writing this formulaic manuscript. Then everyone gets tattoos, which kind of threw me off because I don’t remember there being a class of society dedicated to becoming tattoo artists…
Ok, I won’t give away the whole movie. The plot is actually the least interesting part of the film. The cast is downright phenomenal. Woodley gives depth to Tris, which is a seemingly impossible task because on paper she is not interesting at all. She almost gives J. Law a run for her money in the strong female character department, however, Tris never has to carry a useless fat baker on her back while trying not to get killed – so she loses points there. Although unlike Katniss, Tris’s hair never gets messed up once, and is totally not distracting at all. It is also great to see her working with The Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller, who plays the always delightful Peter Hayes. Woodley and Teller have such great chemistry on screen that, despite Teller being a total dick the whole movie, I kept thinking he would end up being the love interest. The lover-boy role actually goes to Four, played by Theo James, who does a decent job. There is a really great scene between Woodley and James, where Four is being controlled by an iPad and he is trying to kill Tris, that culminates in one of the films real emotional moments.
Newcomer Jai Courtney fucking kills it as Eric, a character who could have easily been miscast, which would have resulted in him being just as flat as the words he was saying. Kate Winslet also delivers as the female version of Heinrich Himmler. The casting of Winslet in this film single handily exposes how terrible Jodie Foster was in Elysium. Here Winslet plays the same exact character- yet she does not make you want bite your own teeth every time she is on screen.
The film is surprisingly brutal and not at all fit for anyone under the age of 13. There is a strange dose of point-blank murder, fratricide, genocide, sexy time, and allusions to sadomasochism. For a movie based on a book that is still on the New York Times Children’s Chapter Books Best Seller List, I couldn’t believe how hardcore violent the film was.
All in all the movie was pretty entertaining at times. It has enough momentum to keep you interested even if you aren’t a fan of the novel. The film does rely somewhat on teen drama cues where the leads finally kiss, to the detriment of young female viewers everywhere. It also gets bogged down in empty dialogue such as when Caleb shares this weighty gem:
“When you choose tomorrow, you have to think of the family, but you also have to think of yourself”.
Divergent also suffers from the pacing issues that these films tend to have where they feel like everything has happened in a two day span of time. By the time the film culminates in an evil Nazi Apple Store, you are kind of left wondering how much time has passed since the opening scene. However, Star Wars has this same problem so, no big deal.
For as little sense as the story makes, the film is actually pretty damn fun. It delivers more than expected based on previous films from Summit Entertainment (The Twilight series). The cast of Divergent delivers incredibly, which should be enough to get you back for Insurgent next year. I can almost hear Veronica Roth Scrooge McDucking it from here.