Divergent Struggles to Engage on its Own

Divergent (2014)

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet

Director: Neil Burger

Adventure, romance, sci-fi

140 minutes

Tris lives in a dystopian world divided into five factions based on their residents’ defining trait: Abnegation (selfless politicians), Amity (happy farmers), Candor (honest judicial authorities), Dauntless (brave soldiers) and Erudite (intelligent scholars). Every year the sixteen-year-olds have to take an aptitude test to decide which faction they belong to. “Faction before blood” is the mantra in this world, which means that if you choose to leave your parents’ faction, there is no going back. Tris and her parents belong to Abnegation but she has never felt quite as selfless and modest as she should; instead she secretly admires the Dauntless - a crowd whose presence never goes unnoticed as they tend to run instead of walking, scream and shout, and jump from moving trains. For Tris, things start to go wrong when she finds out that the test didn’t work on her. Namely, she doesn’t only have one characteristic, but three (gasp!). She is thus something called “Divergent” and apparently a great threat to the whole society. Trying to keep her test results secret, she chooses to follow her heart and join the Dauntless, but the initiation rite of the new faction doesn’t go as smoothly as she had hoped for. Tests keep following each other and she has to fight for her chosen new life as well as find out who she really is.

The film has to be given credit for being easy to follow, even for those who haven’t read Veronica Roth’s best-selling novel that it is based on. On the other hand, it is way too long, considering that in the first two thirds almost nothing happens except Tris trying to tackle test after test. Although it is somewhat entertaining to watch Tris learn how to fight with bare fists and develop a romance with her brooding trainer Four (not quite the new Channing Tatum, Theo James), every now and then you keep wondering if the movie is ever going to get going. When the conspiracy is finally revealed, things start moving fast forward and the film gets more action-driven. Almost too much so, considering that all the major plot changes happen in the last hour or so. Given the movie's length, it is also quite heavy and gloomy with not much humor in it. The lightest and most enjoyable scenes are Tris and Four’s playful altercations and the zip-line ride from a rooftop; otherwise I wouldn’t hold my breath for anything funny.

However, the obviously talented Shailene Woodley portrays Tris very naturally and accessibly and keeps you engaged even if there’s nothing much happening plot-wise. Already having a Golden Globe nomination from The Descendants where she played George Clooney’s daughter, she is definitely someone to keep an eye on. It is also refreshing to see Kate Winslet in a badass supporting role, although her character is somewhat flat and doesn’t give her much room to play with her acting skills. Otherwise most of the supporting actors are surprisingly immemorable. Even though they have some important scenes, a week after seeing the film it is difficult to recollect most of them. 

Of course, comparisons with The Hunger Games cannot be avoided, which is unfortunate for Divergent as it clearly finds it difficult to stand on its own and struggles to break free from The Hunger Games’s shadow. Where The Hunger Games managed to be engaging already in the opening film of the series, it seems that Divergent concentrates too much on setting things up for the follow-ups Insurgent and Allegiant and fails to be interesting in its own right. The biggest problem with Divergent, however, is that its world is very unbelievable. Even the deathly reality TV-show of The Hunger Games, with people watching adolescents hunt each other in the woods with excitement, seems more credible than the five factions of Divergent. It is hard to believe that in a hundred years from now, there would be only five characteristics to define all the people in the world, and that the greatest threat to the society would be people who are both selfless and intelligent. However, if you can get past this incoherence, Divergent is a fairly entertaining movie worth seeing because of Woodley and Winslet, if nothing else, and its target audience is bound to identify with Tris’s quest for her true identity. After all, balancing with finding yourself and trying to fit in is what this movie is really about under all the sci-fi settings.