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Friday, March 21, 2014 03:28:12 PM
Review: Divergent to a Degree

Young Adult literature and dystopian societies go together like sullen peas and carrots. Divergent is a prime example of this phenomenon: Abstract social order, thick mythology, an unassuming hero and a brooding love interest (the sulkier, the better).

It seems like a formula, but it’s easy to get the combination wrong. For every Hunger Games, there is a Mortal Instruments, a hodgepodge of back story, supernatural creatures and random powers that follow no logic or common sense. It’s no wonder the film adaptation of Divergent sticks to the Games model (the gold standard), perhaps too closely to develop an identity of its own.

Divergent takes place in a post-apocalyptic, walled-in Chicago. The population is divided in five factions based on a defining personality trait: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. Suffice to say, there is no room for complexity. Each tribe has a duty in this social order. Hoping for a communally-minded government, Abnegation is given the responsibility to rule, to Erudite’s chagrin.

At an individual level, every teenager is tested before landing in one of the groups. Based on the outcome and their own wishes, every youngster gets to choose between the faction they have been raised on or move into another one. The hero of the piece, Tris (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants), is different. Raised in Abnegation, Tris feels more kinship with Dauntless. In fact, her test indicates she could prosper in either one, or even Erudite. That makes her a divergent and consequently, a danger to the status quo.

This is just the beginning of the thick novel and most of it is included in the film (some of the violence has been toned down a smidge). The first hour of Divergent feels like a very long setup, a necessity considering is the first chapter of a franchise. Director Neil Burger doesn’t quite follow the “show, don’t tell” principle and ends up over-explaining plot points the audience can figure out by itself.

When Tris finally joins the faction of her choice, the movie gets going. The Full Metal Jacket-style training is lively and intriguing. Divergent’s ace in the hole is Shailene Woodley, who carries the movie seamlessly. The actress, superb in last year’s drama The Spectacular Now, is more low key than Jennifer Lawrence (the obvious point of comparison), but already has shown considerable range.

Next to Shailene, Tris’ love interest (Theo James) looks stiff and is often overshadowed by Woodley and Miles Teller, in a supporting role as the training-camp bully. Theo James is sure good looking, but lacks the charisma Teller has is spades. Divergent’s big name, Kate Winslet as Erudite leader, plays her role straight as opposed to chomp the scenery like other A-listers in similar circumstances.

In spite of adopting signature elements of other YA franchises (Harry Potter’s houses, Twilight’s inscrutable suitor, Hunger Games’ distrust of authority), Divergent has a number of interesting ideas of its own, more evidently the celebration of complexity and female empowerment via self-discovery. As establishing episodes go, Divergent gets the job done, but here is hoping the following chapters dig into the meatier aspects of the saga.

2.75 prairie dogs (I was weaving between 2.5 and 3 for too long). Divergent is now playing.

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