Back before the final Twilight film hit theaters, I wrote up an article in which I discussed whether or not certain Young Adult book films would be the “next big thing.” My initial outlook for Divergent looked good, but that was way before The Hunger Games became stupidly popular. Sure it’s hard to compare the two franchises, but in true post-apocalyptic fashion, one can’t survive as long as the other does.
In order to succeed, in order to distinguish itself in a growing sea of teen books, movies, and same looking franchises, Divergent needs to diverge enough from the norm to stand out. Too bad we have to wait for a sequel to see if that happens.
Director: Neil Burger
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Divergent, based on Veronica Roth’s popular novel of the same name, takes place in a world in post-war recovery. In order to keep the peace, society has broken up into five different factions based on a particular trait (Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, Candor, and Dauntless) and divides responsibilities among them (For example, Abnegation handles the government because they’re selfless). There’s a particular day each year where teens take a test, and choose which faction they belong to. On Beatrice’s (Shailene Woodley) test day, she finds out she’s a Divergent, someone who doesn’t conform to any of the factions. From there she decides to join the Dauntless, meets a handsome guy named Four (Theo James), and has to hide her uniqueness before she’s killed.
Unlike the other Young Adult book films I’ve covered here in the past, I had absolutely no background information for Divergent. Have never read the books, and I hadn’t even heard about the property before the film was announced. Unfortunately that also means I don’t know the trajectory of the franchise, and since the film doesn’t see fit to have a clear direction until the last fifteen minutes, this is a bad state to be in. The film’s major issue is that it relies entirely on how much we care about this dystopia and the people within. You’re expected to take what little time you spend getting to know each character and converting that into a deep emotional investment for the finale. And unfortunately for this review, I can’t go into how much the finale bugs me.
Trying to avoid majorly spoiling the film for those who don’t know the story, I’ll just say that my main issue over all is how badly managed the framing the story is spent. The majority of the film, while it fleshes out Tris well, is spent building up a faction we’re going to abandon. Divergent has an interesting world in its hands, but unlike The Hunger Games, we know very little about its inner workings until we’re thrown into the finale. One of the better things about the film is that its dystopia is built on such a unique premise. There’s an innate struggle in how each person has to live their life based on one trait, yet they seem to display all sorts of characteristics. Later in the film, it poses the question of whether or not human nature can be tamed. And when it questions human nature, and forces Tris to look inside herself, Divergent really hits a high point.
Unfortunately as noted throughout the review, Divergent doesn’t explore its world and its fundamental problems until the final third of the film. Until then, it’s all about getting to know Tris and her love affair with Four. While this isn’t necessarily a bad practice (as love affairs are a huge deal in these teen book flicks, and thankfully there isn’t a love triangle), it’s all so generic. It’s a shame when you get a great world to play around in, and the film seems like its going to take a unique turn before the testing begins, it just all becomes this mush of a film you’ve seen hundreds of times before. Here it is: A girl finds out she’s different than everyone else, tries to fit in, meets a guy who’s also different, falls in love, and then it gets interesting again. So much of the interesting world’s material seems to be left for later.
For example, Tris joins the Dauntless faction. The Dauntless are painted as the “good” faction as they’re free to do what they want, yet as wild as they may seem, they police every other faction. There’s a hint that the other factions despise the Dauntless, and that there is a restlessness between the factions, but it isn’t really answered. There’s certainly a hint that not every faction is as good as they seem (Dauntless seems to be the faction of choice, yet it’s littered with jerks), but the greater aspects of the world seemed to be saved for later too. Kids take an aptitude test to find out what faction they’d be good for, and yet they eventually can decide for themselves what faction they go to. This aspect of choice vs the illusion of choice is a great thing, but never goes anywhere.
It’s certainly not the fault of the cast that Divergent seems stale, as everyone seems to be on point (Zoe Kravitz, Jai Courtney, and Woodley in particular). They just don’t get much to work with. Tris gets a wonderful line toward the end (along the lines of “why does everyone keep asking that?”) that’s helped with Woodley’s delivery. And when the film kicks in toward the end, there are quite a few scenes that only work because of the cast. As interesting in premise as the finale is, it also suffers from generic actions beats (and one awful one liner), but it seemed to get a rise out of the audience I saw it in.
Divergent is a good sounding film with a great dystopia setting, yet it suffers from confident sequel syndrome. The ending of the film itself isn’t a huge cliffhanger, and the film does wrap up one plot, but it could’ve managed its time better to deliver more story. For the majority of the film we’re left with Tris and her wanting to join Dauntless, yet she abandons the faction in the finale. In doing so, investing time in something that essentially won’t matter later, it becomes a giant waste of time. I hate to end this review saying something like “Divergent is a waste of time until a sequel comes out,” but I just feel cheated. I feel like I can’t score Divergent as it doesn’t really become a film of its own, it’s just all setup.
So much like Divergent, I’m just going to leave this hanging.