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Divergent Movie Review

Divergent (2014) movie poster Divergent

Theatrical Release: March 21, 2014 / Running Time: 143 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Neil Burger / Writers: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor (screenplay); Veronica Roth (novel)

Cast: Shailene Woodley (Beatrice "Tris" Prior), Theo James (Tobias "Four" Eaton), Ashley Judd (Natalie Prior), Jai Courtney (Eric), Ray Stevenson (Marcus Eaton), Zo Kravitz (Christina), Miles Teller (Peter), Tony Goldwyn (Andrew Prior), Ansel Elgort (Caleb Prior), Maggie Q (Tori), Mekhi Phifer (Max), Kate Winslet (Jeanine Matthews), Ben Lloyd-Hughes (Will), Christian Madsen (Al), Amy Newbold (Molly Atwood), Ben Lamb (Edward)

 

On this weekend two years ago, The Hunger Games opened in theaters. Since then, we've gotten one sequel with two more to follow and two essentially direct-to-video spoofs with parody titles.
Now, we get the first unmistakable Hunger Games copycat in Divergent. Divergent hails from Summit Entertainment, which was bought by Hunger Games distributor Lionsgate in early 2012. The timing is no coincidence, for Lionsgate/Summit would love to have two blockbusters a year, this late March window keeping distance from the pre-Thanksgiving dates the remaining Hunger Games sequels have claimed.

Before it arrived, Hunger Games was foreseen as "the next Twilight", which itself was considered a successor to the Harry Potter franchise it overlapped. The similarities between Divergent and Hunger Games go beyond a common source (a trilogy of recent young adult novels) and audience (teenagers, especially girls). The two franchises center on a teenaged female protagonist who must prove herself against deadly odds in a dystopian, totalitarian future.

Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) reinvents herself as "Tris" in the adventuresome faction called Dauntless.

In Divergent's future, the people of Chicago are divided into five "factions" by which they live and dress. Children are raised in the faction of their parents, but when they turn 16, they take an aptitude test to discover which group they're best suited for, before making their own decision. Though she's born into an Abnegation home, selflessness doesn't come naturally for Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley). Her aptitude test reveals that Abnegation and the other four factions all incorporate aspects of her personality. Beatrice is the rare outlier for whom the test is inconclusive, an outcome that is feared by all and often leads to a mysterious end. Knowing the dangers of such a result, Beatrice's proctor (Maggie Q) fudges her result and warns her to keep it secret.

Beatrice decides to shun the tradition of her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) and the faked result of her aptitude test and follow her heart. She chooses Dauntless, the brave, adventurous warriors assigned to protect the city. This black-clad group's way of life is a far cry from the peaceful norms of her gray-toned upbringing. Renaming herself "Tris", Beatrice has to climb up to elevated train tracks, jump on a moving train, leap off it and on to a rooftop several feet away, and then plunge blindly into an unseen net within the wreckage of a building many stories tall. And that's just to get to the Dauntless headquarters, a place of communal co-ed dorms and stall-free toilets.

Tris and her new friends, including brutally honest Candor child Christina (Zo Kravitz), are immediately put to the test by their instructors, the cold "Four" (Theo James) and the even colder Eric (Jai Courtney). The initiates fight each other until surrender and are thrown into a virtual reality scenario pitting them against their fears. The lowest-ranked initiates will be cut from the program, unable to return home and left to join the homeless, factionless derelict population.

Meanwhile, the intelligent faction Erudite (led by Kate Winslet's Jeanine Matthews) is looking to assume governing power from Abnegation, creating some rivalry and hostility between the two factions and their dissimilar inhabitants.

There is rarely a dull moment in Dauntless' Pit, as Eric (Jai Courtney) teaches Christina (Zo Kravitz) a lesson in dauntlessness. Tori (Maggie Q), the compassionate lady who forged Tris' aptitude test results, also administers her Dauntless final exam.

Narratively, visually, and thematically,
Divergent closely resembles The Hunger Games, but it's not nearly as rich and rewarding as that survival franchise. In execution, Divergent lands around the original Twilight, inviting similar ridicule but to a lesser degree, its sci-fi framework not striking one as outlandish as Stephenie Meyer's vampire-werewolf-girl love triangle.

Divergent feels highly derivative. The first book was published 2 years after Suzanne Collins' initial Hunger Games novel. While I can't speak to the similarities on page, they are obvious onscreen. Divergent always feels like a second- or third-rate Hunger Games knockoff.

The talent that Divergent assembles on both sides of the camera is no match for Hunger's riches. Director Neil Burger is best known for a pair of overrated mystery thrillers, The Illusionist and Limitless. His two screenwriters have even less proven track records; Vanessa Taylor comes primarily from television (most recently, "Game of Thrones"), while Evan Daugherty's few film credits include Snow White and the Huntsman and last year's scarcely-seen John Travolta vs. Robert De Niro mano a mano woods flick Killing Season. Divergent seems like a big opportunity for all three of these individuals to advance their careers and make names for themselves. But it's not to be, as the movie's long-winded establishing act gives way to mushy romance and shockingly unremarkable, unimaginative action.

A sturdy foundation and compelling universe are essential to us caring about Katniss Everdeen. Though ample time goes into establishing characters and rules here, they don't ultimately lead anywhere stimulating or exciting. Woodley probably narrowly missed out on a supporting actress Oscar nomination for The Descendants and earned good marks for The Spectacular Now, but she hasn't come nearly as far from her breakout gig (ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager") as Jennifer Lawrence has presumably come from her own cable TV series ("The Bill Engvall Show"). At times, Divergent feels like it could be the most expensive ABC Family production to date. The movie's visual effects and production design make for compelling locales and images. But they can't elevate the foreground material, which is just plain corny most of the time.

Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) are supposed to be the new Bella and Edward or Katniss and Peeta.

Big YA flops are plentiful and sometimes tough to predict. Still, Divergent seems poised to do strong business. Sequels are already scheduled for the next two Marches, with Burger expected not to return. The audience at my screening applauded at the end and not because they endured the excessive well over two-hour runtime. They also audibly swooned at the introduction and certain moments of Theo James, a largely unknown Brit resembling James Franco. But the reviews will be overwhelmingly negative because the movie isn't so great and also because critics have seen this type of thing done much, much better twice in the past two years.

Related Reviews:
Shailene Woodley: The Descendants | Theo James: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Kate Winslet: Labor Day Contagion | Ashley Judd: Dolphin Tale Olympus Has Fallen
The Hunger Games The Hunger Games: Catching Fire The Twilight Saga: Eclipse Beautiful Creatures
Now in Theaters: Muppets Most Wanted The Grand Budapest Hotel | Written by Evan Daugherty: Killing Season

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Reviewed March 21, 2014.



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