Two stars (out of four)
Let’s cut to the chase about Divergent, the latest competitor in the young-adult fiction-to-film battleground: Is it going to take down The Hunger Games franchise?
It is remarkably similar in its story of teens — led by a reluctant heroine who steps up when called upon — banding together to save a broken world, despite the interference of a powerful adult trying all he (or she: Kate Winslet, in this case) can to throw a wrench into the works.
In contrast Divergent, the first of three films based on Veronica Roth’s trilogy, feels like it’s marching to a formula beat, never drawing us into the emotional space of our hero Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) with its jam-packed plot.
Unlike Jennifer Lawrence’s shrewdly resourceful and ever-watchful Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Beatrice, soon to change her name to the more awesome-sounding Tris, isn’t as quick to inspire in Divergent. She seems to just go through the motions; a little feisty here, some defiance there. Punch the bag, run around, set jaw defiantly.
Life is hard in Divergent’s dystopian Chicago, a future city left in semi-ruins and now fenced off from a hostile outer world. To keep the peace, society is split into factions who live and work as a group, based on skills and personality variations: Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peacemakers), Candor (honest), Dauntless (the brave) and Erudite (intelligent).
Beatrice’s Abnegation family, dad (Tony Goldwyn), mom (Ashley Judd) and twin brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are members of the modest, do-good clan, but the time is coming when 16-year-olds prepare to leave their homes and families for new lives. They decide which faction to join in a Choosing Ceremony that echoes a date with Harry Potter’s sorting hat.
Choose what you will, going with family legacy or not, but you are stuck with your decision, the teens are reminded in what turns out to be the most interesting part of the film, blending rebellion and self determination with the angst of leaving home, childhood and parents behind.
Society says your faction is mostly bred in the bone, but Tris has a secret: an aptitude test has revealed she’s a Divergent, capable of being a member of any group but belonging to none. She can’t let anyone find out because in this world, there’s no room for system-threatening rogues, as icy Erudite leader Jeanine (Winslet) hisses with menace.
Tris shocks her family by aligning herself with the fearless Dauntless crew, the faction charged with keeping order, even as they relish in shattering it with exuberant hollering as they joyously leap, run and fling themselves from moving subway trains and across rooftops.
To prepare, Tris and fellow Dauntless newbies Peter (Miles Teller) and Christina (Zoë Kravitz) take battle training from dour-faced hunk Four (Theo James) urged to new levels of risk-taking by nasty pants Eric (Jai Courtney).
Tris is also challenged to face her fears — literally — thanks to some spooky drug therapy. How she copes could be mean her Divergent unmasking when she takes a final Dauntless test.
Worse, Jeanine has plans for an Erudite takeover on the backs of Dauntless fighters and Tris, aided and encouraged by Four, who is sheltering a secret of his own, needs to find a way to bring power back to the people.
It’s not that we don’t want Tris to succeed. We’re investing a lot of time (close to two and a half hours) to follow her progress but there’s pallid chemistry between her and the artfully tattooed Four, even as they start to find there’s more than a teacher-apprentice bond in the works.
Novelist Roth was just 22 when Divergent was published and her somewhat simplistic and youthful view of relationships, conflict and authority shows in the screenplay, written by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones).
Director Neil Burger, who proved himself with Limitless and The Lucky Ones, has a lot of ground to cover with Divergent. He makes the most of the Chicago setting, especially its rocketing elevated trains and the massive Ferris wheel at the Navy Pier.
Woodley is an obviously talented actress, a standout in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, but she’s let down by the story surrounding her.
Summit Entertainment, which brought the Twilight franchise to the screen, clearly sees Divergent and subsequent sequels Insurgent (2015) and Allegiant (2016) as the next hot thing for the teen-power apocalyptic fan base.
However, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1 opens in November with Part 2 following in 2015 and that could put a chill on that plan.
Katniss and Tris battling it out? Bring it.
Linda Barnard is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.