There’s nothing I love more than watching a world built from the ground up.
From the small desert cantina of Mos Eisley to the hallowed halls of Hogwarts, when it’s executed right it’s nothing short of magic.
Divergent, based on the novel by Veronica Roth, opts for that oh-so-familiar dystopian world.
It’s pretty standard stuff. Tokens of the old days (a rusted out barge, the decaying ruins of Chicago) are backdropped against the new order (electrified fences and conformist fashion choices).
As it so often is in these cases, this is post-war USA and some not so subtle changes have taken hold.
Divergent, even with its flaws, seems to be most interesting when it’s piecing together the little nuances of its idiosyncratic society.
Its people are split into five factions, meant to reduce the chance of any further fighting. (If you can’t see the problem with that logic the ending’s going to hit you with a surprise).
The Abnegation faction value selflessness and humility. Candor, the truth. Erudite, intelligence. Amity, they’re the Earth-loving farmers. And Dauntless, the rather buoyant faction tasked with defending this society.
Remember all that, because it’s confusing as hell for the first half hour of the movie.
It’s faction before blood in this place and at the age of 16 every person has to make the choice whether to stay with their own kind or leave their families forever and join a new group. This is the crossroads at which we find Tris (Shailene Woodley), a young Abnegation girl who falls somewhere between Katniss Everdeen and Bella Swan on the scale of strong female heroines.
Tris, like most 16 year olds, isn’t quite sure where she fits in yet. Her personality test is no help, branding her as (you guessed it!) divergent. She doesn’t fit in with any faction, a particularly dangerous label in this society.
But this is all brushed under the rug by a sympathetic test administrator, and when it comes time for her to choose her faction she picks Dauntless, a group quite opposite her own.
Admittedly, this is where the movie starts to show some signs of sluggishness, running through a sling of the typical science fiction boot camp clichés. Basically these are the regular boot camp clichés, except our heroes have to prove themselves in some sort of extra-techy training exercise or virtual reality mind game, or in this case both.
It’s also where Tris meets steely-eyed Four (Theo James) and the romance element of the film starts to creep in and take over. It’s problematic, not just because Tris is a far better character without it, but because it seems to interject itself into moments that just don’t call for it.
Do we really need a slow motion close up every time the two of them brush arms?
Still, the real issue with Divergent is that once its world is built, it just can’t find a compelling story to tell in it. The dialogue gets sloppier, major plot points are spoon fed to the audience and character deaths that should feel meaningful just feel manipulative.
Once the giant conspiracy brewing throughout the movie is revealed, it ends up feeling like something concocted by a Bond villain.
In its defense, Divergent feels very much like the first book/movie of a series. There are certainly stories to be told here, especially when the burden of introducing the world has been lifted. But whatever early promise Divergent had seems squandered by film’s end. It may satisfy fans of the books, but not much else.
Final Score: 2/5