Some teen-focused films turn out to be wonderful entertainment for all ages in the audience, like the extraordinary 8-film Harry Potter series and, to a lesser extent, The Hunger Games movies. Then there are films that only a teen can love, like the ghastly Twilight series. I couldn’t even finish watching the first film in that series, though, so I don’t know, they might have gotten dramatically better as the series progressed. Maybe.
Divergent is somewhere in the middle, a competently assembled film from a shallow but interesting best-selling book by Veronica Roth that features all the fascist, dystopian tropes you’d expect from a post-nuclear holocaust, along with a mix of decent and mediocre acting. Divergent takes place in a walled-off Chicago at some unknown period in the future. Lake Michigan has dried up so Navy Pier thrusts out into fields of mud and scrub plants. The Chicago River is also dried up, and most of the skyscrapers show significant damage and have massive wind turbines attached to their edges to, presumably, generate electricity.
To keep society under control, adults are sorted into one of five different factions: Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity and Candor. Dauntless are the soldiers and peace keepers, Abnegation are the selfless, helping the factionless and shunning material goods, including the vanity of mirrors, Erudite are the academics, the center of learning and research, Amity are the peace-lovers, the farmers who happily tend the soil, and Candor are the honest and truthful, the center of justice in this post-modern world. Government is run by the Abnegation council, but the Erudite scheme to overthrow them and run the city-state for its own benefit.
Tris (Shailene Woodley) and her twin brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are at the time of choosing, a point in their adolesence where the Erudites perform a mysterious test on each child and “suggest” a clan for them. Unlike Harry Potter’s sorting hat (a similar, albeit more entertaining concept), the young adults can reject the suggestion and join whatever faction most appeals to them. Caleb doesn’t choose Abnegation, the faction of their parents and childhood, however, he becomes an Erudite to everyone’s surprise. But that’s overshadowed by Tris deciding at the last moment to join Dauntless, though she, we learn, is a “Divergent”, someone who doesn’t fit neatly into any of the five factions but instead embodies elements of them all.
At this point the film moves into a long series of tired cinematic clichés about initiation, boot camp, training people to become tough soldiers, etc. In fact, it’s not until almost 90 min into the film that something outside of the Dauntless training area actually occurs. Until that time, the film just kept reminding me of Starship Troopers, except without any of the humor or sexual tension.
In fact, that was one of the critical problems with Divergent: lack of actual drama. The story was so concerned with whether Tris and her fellow initiates would make the cut and become full members of Dauntless that there was almost no time allotted for relationships and the camaraderie that makes boot camp such a fertile ground for film (the first half of the intense Full Metal Jacket stands in great contrast, for example).
The fact that the film actually revolved around her instructor Four (Theo James) falling in love with her and the two of them having an intimate relationship was almost completely glossed over in director Neil Burger’s version of the story. There’s a core adolescent journey that ties neatly to a superior/inferior love story, which is why it occurs in so, so many works of fiction, but while that should have been a major element of the movie, it ended up as an afterthought, a plot device hastily added to ensure the second portion made sense.
The initial antagonist, predictably, is drill instructor Eric (Jai Courtney), and as the story finally expands beyond basic training, it becomes the evil head of the Erudite faction Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet). They’re cookie-cutter roles, both well played, but there was a certain malevolence that Winslet lacked which made the entire story of her Erudite faction drugging Dauntless soldiers to kill Abnegation’s members (which makes no sense anyway, but that’s another story).
The production is right out of the totalitarian cautionary tale 1984, with almost no living plants, lots of concrete, everyone in dour, neutral clothing and smiles and laughter almost non-existent, even in the late night bonding sessions between the Dauntless trainees. All I can conclude is that in the future they lose the ability to dye clothes interesting colors.
Then there are those fans which are so overtly visible on every tall building. Presumably they’re to generate electricity for the Erudite computer systems but later in the film when Tris and her friends have won a game of capture the flag (another echo of Starship Troopers) and gaze out over the ruins of Chicago, it’s completely dark, without a single illuminated window. Why?
Almost all teen films address the adolescent milestones of turning away from family to find your own path in the world and entering into real relationships, but Divergent is notable in that it got lost in the details and forgot the core elements of the story. Visually it’s very nice, with lots of splendid visual effects and long shots, but those should support the main story of Tris and her journey from meek and unsure child of Abnegation to true Divergent masquerading as Dauntless and hero of the city, thwarting the evil plans of the Erudite. My advice: skip the movie, read the book.