There is one major disclaimer I have to start out with before getting into my review - I have not read any of the books in Veronica Roth's Divergent series. From my experience with fans of the novel, that makes quite a difference in one's opinion of this movie (though apparently not too much of a difference). Based on the incredible success of The Hunger Games film adaptations, it seems like a logical move to green-light any popular young adult book series into a movie franchise. However, this hasn't always been successful. Within the last year alone we've seen two of these films crash and burn both critically as well as financially (The Host and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), so it wasn't a sure thing that this movie would perform much better. With any series of books, the box-office success hinges on attracting new viewers who are unfamiliar with the source material to the franchise, which is an audience I am rarely a part of. All I was hoping for going into this film was an enjoyable experience, and even my loftiest expectations were to find a new YA franchise to dig into until Mockingjay Part 1 hits theaters later this year.
In a futuristic Chicago a young girl named Beatrice is frightened at the upcoming aptitude test that will suggest which of the five factions of her society she would be a natural fit. Her family comes from Abnegation, a faction that holds selflessness above all other qualities, and she is worried that she will cause her parents pain by selecting another faction. She's never really felt she belonged in her parents' faction, and wonders whether their disappointment or her own would be harder to bear after the choosing day. However, when her aptitude test results are inconclusive (labeling her as "Divergent"), Beatrice is left to her own devices to make a decision. On the day of the choosing ceremony, she decides to align herself with Dauntless, a faction known for being brave. Her parents are visibly disappointed and she also begins to worry about her decision when her boot-camp/training begins. Changing her name to Tris and struggling to pass the trials in order to avoid being factionless (aka, homeless), she begins to realize that a danger may have infiltrated her new faction as forces combine to hunt down Divergents like herself.
Hopefully that plot summary isn't too extensive, but if you've read the books that should sound fairly familiar. This movie never really impressed me that much from the marketing campaign, even though the visual effects from the trailers have been more-or-less on par with the first Hunger Games film. Perhaps it was the lack of recognizable actors (besides Kate Winslet), but I was probably as nervous as Tris before her aptitude test when I went into this screening. I knew the basic outline of the story but had no idea how they would stretch this concept into a two hour film, let alone an entire trilogy.
Though it may anger fans of the property, I have to say that the first 45 minutes did little to abate my fears. In fact, the first act of this movie was an embodiment of what I expected this adaptation to be; meandering, aimless, befuddling, and almost cringe-worthy at times. The characterization of the different factions is so extreme (particularly the hooting and hollering of the Dauntless group as they climb various structures) that it elicited an unintentional laugh from me. Perhaps that has to do with the acting, as the largely unknown cast did little to convince me of the reality of their world. Why couldn't Lionsgate get anybody but Kate Winslet into this film when a slew of stars were lining up to play in the Hunger Games films? I won't delve into my theories about that, but suffice it to say that I was a little underwhelmed by most of the performances in this movie. Even Winslet doesn't seem to be giving it her full attention, which definitely takes some of the energy out of the narrative.
Surprisingly, this outright negative feeling didn't persist throughout the entire film. The second act really brought me back by introducing some stakes and finally getting to the point of this movie - her being a Divergent. People like Tris are being hunted and once we realize the danger she is in, this film becomes much more engaging. I only wish they had reached this point in the film sooner and spent more time on it to really emphasize the conflict of the film. Obviously they are doing more than just set up one film with Divergent, but there are ways to judiciously pepper in hints of future story-lines and battles yet to come without it undermining the momentum of the story.
This film is structured in a very cookie-cutter kind of way, and leaves some fairly overt hints as to what it plans to pay off by the end of the movie. After the movie ended I spoke with my sister (who read the books and enjoyed the film more than I did), and she brought up something that I wasn't able to articulate about this film that I wished was done a little better - the film's lack of mystery. One of the best ways to heighten tension and anticipation in what's coming as well as get audiences invested in what they're currently seeing is to introduce a mystery. There's never any doubt as to who the villain of the story is going to be, and all of the plot points were so telegraphed that they might as well have given each audience member a copy of the script before entering the theater. I understand that many people have read the book and therefore wouldn't necessarily benefit from a mysterious unveiling of the plot, but as a newbie to the franchise it would have vastly increased my enjoyment of Divergent had it been more surprising when things happened (as it surely was in the book).
There are things this movie did right, however, and I want to take a moment to bring those up before fans of the film accuse me of unabashedly hating on Divergent. As I said before, the visual effects are actually quite well done, and the futuristic take on Chicago (as well as the deserted outskirts) is portrayed pretty seamlessly. Also, though it is derivative of some of his better work, Hans Zimmer's involvement with the music was definitely a positive as the composition did underscore the danger and intensity of the training as well as the final confrontation. While I've given few compliments to the actors, let me just say that I didn't really have a problem with Shailene Woodley in this movie, as she did a good job personifying a confused girl searching for an identity. Her depiction of Tris's growth throughout the training regimen is pretty impressive as well, and the fact that I buy her as a timid weakling as well as a tough warrior speaks to her believability in the role.
Ultimately, I think that fans of the book are going to be satisfied with this film. It does nothing to ruin the positive association you would get from Veronica Roth's novel and does a credible job of establishing this new world. The acting is serviceable and the story is competently told, but as a newcomer to the series it doesn't really excite me for future entries. It's really not a bad movie and there are things I liked about it, but it's just a lackluster effort to translate a surprising, exciting story to the screen. For readers I give this a recommend, but I don't think newcomers will be overly happy with this first entry. Hopefully this series will see a similar jump in quality that The Hunger Games saw with its sequel. I wish I could be saying differently, but I give Divergent two and a half stars.
DIVERGENT is rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality