Woodley Struggles for Freedom in Cumbersome 'Divergent'

Directed by: Neil Burger; Runtime: 139 minutes
Grade: C+

As some modern movie adaptations of popular young-adult books elevate expectations of what they're capable of, there are a slate of recent others -- from The Mortal Instruments to The Host and Percy Jackson -- that serve as a reminder of the turbulence still plaguing the subgenre. Despite Hollywood's progress in the halls of Hogwarts and the districts of Panem, there's still a lot of kinks that haven't been worked out in balancing solid filmmaking, story reverence, and respect to a loyal fanbase in other franchises. Hoping to strike while the Mockingjay iron's hot, Summit/Lionsgate called upon The Illusionist and Limitless director Neil Burger to take a shot at Divergent, Veronica Roth's familiarly-themed series of books about dystopian government control and the civilization's youth choosing a set personality type and way of living at an early age. While this mostly-respectful yet muddled adaptation leaves one hungry for the magic of Burger's more inventive style and the novel's sharper edge, there's still a spark generated by the performances and themes of non-conformity that boost it above most of its other tepid contemporaries.

Divergent takes place at an undisclosed period in human history following a vague catastrophe, walling off the city of Chicago in a quasi-quarantine. With no knowledge of what lies beyond its fence, those living within the city cohabitate in a utopic system hinged on factions: groups who live by and obey specific virtues of peace (Amity), truth (Candor), intelligence (Erudite), bravery (Dauntless), and selflessness (Abnegation). Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her family (Tony Goldwyn; Ashley Judd; Ansel Elgort) belong to the last group, Abnegation, who are tasked with governing the city's population -- a paradigm challenged by the Erudite, led by Jeannine Matthews (Kate Winslet) -- and caring for the "faction-less" castoffs. On their sixteenth birthday, teenagers in each faction are administered a virtual-reality aptitude simulation and are required to choose which of these groups they belong to based on this test (and their individual outlook), while those who place in multiple mental spheres, called "divergent", are viewed as dangerous. Beatrice, always rebellious against her faction's unyielding self-sacrifice, falls into that category. With help hiding her secret, she chooses a different faction: Dauntless.

Pointing out Veronica Roth's influences isn't difficult, from a choosing ceremony and merit-based districts to a singular heroine whose lack of bow or wand really isn't fooling anyone, yet the author brings some thematic and visceral bite to the table that reconstructs the ideas in a distinct, albeit far-fetched, environment. The script from Snow White and the Huntsman's Evan Daugherty and Game of Thrones' Vanessa Taylor regrettably muzzles some of that energy, allowing on-the-nose expository dialogue and a safe, cold shoulder from violence to expose the story's resemblance to others like it. Areas where Burger's imaginative direction would be expected to take flight -- notably during the mental simulations -- are awkwardly truncated and obscured without the benefit of Tris' point-of-view narration. This becomes tricky when she uses the info to inform her decision towards the "warrior" class that's opportunely designed to shape her into a hero, which feels more like contrived recklessness than an expression of daring self-discovery.

The bulk of Divergent takes place in the rocky pit of the Dauntless training facility, the space designed to harden Tris and build her camaraderie with other initiates, including her ex-Candor bestie, Christina (almost-perfectly portrayed by Zoe Kravitz). It's a drawn-out stretch of hand-to-hand combat and artillery training that's intended to be a dangerous zone, elevated in the book by strict high-stakes competition and cutthroat brutality. Unfortunately, a lack of risks taken in the filmmaking transform Tris' physical metamorphosis into little more than a drably-shot bootcamp, never seeming like she's really in jeopardy. The script contends that she's on shaky ground -- primarily through verbal bullying from the ominous head-instructor, Erik (Jai Counrtney), and how her name dips on a ranking board -- but the prolonged initiation lacks the convincing peril it needs to offset cinematic expectations, namely in how the film underuses her competitive antagonist, Peter (Miles Teller), a cocky nuisance who'd easily get put in his place by someone like The Karate Kid's bloodthirsty Johnny.

What Neil Burger and his writers do well, once you've cut through some of the daftness, lies in how Tris' insecurity gets sharpened against the whetstone of the Dauntless facility and through the desolate expanses of abandoned Chicago, along with the developing mystery and secrecy of her "inconclusive" personality. While Shailene Woodley might not fit what readers pictured in the book, she skillfully navigates Tris' internal disarray over her test results and resolve to discover who she's meant to be, especially when she reveals her selfishness, unpredictable reactions, and moments where she embraces her new faction's gusto. The depth of Tris' character elevates the dystopian film amid its anemic representation of the city's uneven social climate and witchhunt for those who share her divergence, along with her developing rapport with Four (Theo James), her stoic-yet-intimidating instructor whose interest develops beyond a teacher's concern. Both Woodley and Theo James elevate the pair's typical YA-novel flirtations with uniquely skewed chemistry, especially as James surprises with how he enriches Four's sympathetic history and chinks in his armor.

Ultimately, though, it's discouraging to see Burger's astute direction get bogged down in Divergent's dullness and predictability, despite its credible performances and respectable symbolic intentions. Even as the stakes are bolstered by the last act's science-fiction elements and the broken nature of conforming to the faction system -- powered by renegade serums and military strikes amid the city's maze -- the cumbersome rhythm of it all resembles the subtle lull of a train arriving at a recognizable destination. Instead of assembling something that'd break away from other franchises of its ilk, director Burger ends up playing too by-the-numbers while riding the rails along its climactic beats, even when it does mildly diverge from Roth's text (and further employs Kate Winslet, boosting the gray-area complexity of the Erudite's leader). The drama that's brought to the screen in this adaptation will satisfy those yearning to see their spirited heroine in motion, but the origin of this promising film franchise needed more dauntless bravery and less passive compliance to fuel an insurgence among its contemporaries.

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