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Film Review: 'Divergent'

Melissah Yang |
March 26, 2014 | 12:45 p.m. PDT


Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) give "Divergent" enough spark to warrant the film franchise. (Courtesy Summit Entertainment)
Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) give "Divergent" enough spark to warrant the film franchise. (Courtesy Summit Entertainment)
If it looks like “The Hunger Games” and sounds like “The Hunger Games,” then it must be just like “The Hunger Games.”


While it might be easy to dismiss “Divergent” (2014) as the “other young heroine movie that doesn’t have Jennifer Lawrence,” the sci-fi adventure flick delivers a promising start to the latest franchise looking to score in the YA genre. 

The comparisons between “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” are unavoidable. Both films are based on novels that feature a resilient girl fighting against a flawed social system in a dystopian future. And it doesn’t help that the two leading ladies — Lawrence and Shailene Woodley — have “girl-next-door” features and exhibit the same kind of raspy voice.

But “Divergent” IS different.

READ MORE: Film Review: 'The Hunger Games'

It should be noted the novel’s author, Veronica Roth, is almost as young as the film's key demographic (she turns 26 later this year). Roth penned the first installment of the "Divergent" series while finishing her senior year at Northwestern University. The novel was published in 2011, a year after she graduated from the school’s creative writing program, and instantly became a New York Times bestseller. 

“Divergent” takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, parts of which still show ravaged buildings from a war that took place generations ago. Society has been divided into five factions, which represent different traits that reflect the best in humans — Amity (kindness), Candor (honesty), Erudite (intelligence), Abnegation (selflessness) and Dauntless (bravery).

The film first shows Beatrice Prior (Woodley) getting a haircut from her mother (Ashley Judd). Dressed in drab gray, Beatrice is allowed only a quick glance at the mirror. As part of the selfless Abnegation, Beatrice can’t look at her reflection for too long because it would be vain or, in other words, a selfish act.  

We quickly learn that Beatrice faces an important moment in her life. Wide-eyed, she steps in an eerily lit room to take an aptitude test that will tell her what faction she’s most suited to join. But Beatrice’s results are inconclusive. Her test administrator (Maggie Q) informs her she doesn’t fit any one faction, which makes her Divergent, a label she’s told she must hide because some view it as dangerous.

On Choosing Day, most 16-year-olds stay with the faction they’ve grown up with, but both Beatrice and her brother Caleb opt out of Abnegation. To their parents’ shock, Caleb chooses Erudite and Beatrice decides to join Dauntless. 

Dauntless is everything that Abnegation is not. Clad in black and covered in tattoos and piercings, the rowdy Dauntless move as if they did parkour out of the womb. They whoop as they jump in and out of moving trains, always looking for ways to prove their bravery. Beatrice rechristens herself as “Tris” and begins the tough initiation process that will make her one of them.

Much of the film follows Tris’ training, which tests her physical and mental strength. The film doesn’t skimp on showing grisly hand-to-hand combat, a smart choice since the novel goes deep in detail on how bloody the fighting mat and people's faces can get. Tris finds a few friends among the trainees and soon catches the interest of their instructor, the brooding Four (Theo James). The chemistry between Woodley and James is undeniable, and fans of Four will probably squeal with satisfaction at James’ portrayal as he stirs the PG-13 love fantasies of adolescent girls everywhere.

But Woodley and James aside, the rest of the youngsters is like a Mickey Mouse Reject Club of forgettable faces. While the book adds color and depth to Tris’ friends and rivals, the film never fully explains why the audience should care when one shows an act of bravery and another commits an act of betrayal.

READ MORE: Film Review: 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

Underlying Tris’ bildungsroman is a plot led by an icy Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), an Erudite leader looking to overthrow the “perfect society.” The veteran actress is a refreshing presence in the otherwise young cast. Winslet might sing a sweet song of compassion to our heroine, but a slight flicker in her steely blue eyes reveal much more nefarious intentions.

Those who have read the “Divergent” series should be relatively happy with the final product as the film doesn’t stray too far from the original. Some digressions are puzzling, such as the decision to omit a key scene when Tris' mother visits her at the Dauntless compound. But the film stands strong at two and a half hours, cramming in as many details as it can.

Still, those who haven’t read the books might get lost along the way since the film depends on many nuances from the novel.

The big question facing "Divergent" was whether it could hold its own in the saturated YA landscape and follow the success of franchises such as "Twilight" and, of course, "The Hunger Games."

The up-and-coming Woodley makes "Divergent" a worthwhile bet. Originally an indie darling, she first emerged in films such as George Clooney’s “The Descendants” (2011), which won her an Independent Spirit Award and garnered a Golden Globe nod, and “The Spectacular Now” (2013). With “Divergent” now under her belt and more to come — follow-ups “Insurgent” and “Allegiant” are already in pre-production — Woodley gives the series the tools it needs to become another YA success story.

Reach Editor-at-Large Melissah Yang here. Follow her on Twitter @MelissahYang.



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