It’s not difficult to see why there was a boom in young adult fiction movies, or why many of the tropes were so similar. Running central through these stories is always a distrust of adult figures, a difficulty in working out your identity, and fighting to make the world around you make some kind of sense.
Divergent takes these concepts and adds a very literal conceit into the mix. Set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago where the world outside the walls is but a howling wasteland, the citizens occupying these ruins are separated into specific factions based on defining personality traits. Through advanced testing, the best match is identified and most teenagers follow into their parents’ faction. But there are outliers and when testing can’t match young Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) she discovers she is a dreaded ‘divergent’: one who can fit into any faction, and thus her existence threatens the powers that be.
Tris keeps her secret and picks instead the law enforcement faction known as Dauntless (rather than her parents’ ‘selfless’ faction of Abnegation). Those who have watched enough young adult movies will certainly get the influences here. The level of plot bending technology available to those in power is very Hunger Games and the mysterious elements behind those in power smacks of The Maze Runner. Fear of the other can be found in The Host, and the hidden powers element has touches of The Mortal Instruments. On the surface, Divergent is a hodgepodge of all the usual movies.
Despite your standard post-apocalyptic fare, Divergent carves a niche for itself by having an intriguing, if rushed, plot, and a limited cast of mostly likable characters. Woodley as Tris carries with her a cynical cautiousness which is much more believable than Katniss Everdeen’s blinkered nature in The Hunger Games. The way she side-eyes all scenarios whilst trying to figure out the mystery of herself and her place is as subtle a metaphor as a hormonal slap to the face but the lack of contrivance is certainly refreshing.
Core to the movie is her relationship with the brooding (obviously) love interest known as Four (Theo James). As a Dauntless trainer, Four is tasked with getting the new recruits up to scratch. The growing attraction between the two characters is a slow burner which isn’t devalued by it’s signposted inevitability. James imbues his stoic performance with a light behind the eyes that is more attractive than any tortured love triangle from The Host or that residents of Panem cough up.
Divergent focuses so heavily on Tris and her journey that the world building is zoomed through unsatisfactorily. Little attention is paid to the other factions except those of the intelligent academics, Erudite. Led by Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and also enfolding Tris’ brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort, Baby Driver), the Erudite clan are a bunch of smarty-pants that are clearly up to something. Winslet’s character may shift from ‘this is for the greater good’ to the kind of comical callousness that would make Magneto do a double take, but Winslet’s two faced delivery means that Tris’s scenes with her sparkle marvelously.
Taken as a start-up movie in a series of three (a fourth was planned but never made) Divergent suffers from the leg-work needed to get everything started. There is little sense of scale of this Chicago as wider detail is sacrificed resulting in the movie being the Tris Show, but Woodley gives her enough steel for this to work. Arguably, follow up movie Insurgent has better oomph to it but there is plenty of fun to be had here. I certainly enjoyed desperately waiting for the most punchable faced man to get the smirk slapped right off of him (Miles Teller, who puts in an equally slapable performance in the superb Whiplash).
Divergent assessed among its peers calls to mind a Japanese proverb: “The nail which stands out will be hammered down”. It may not be especially different from other teen dystopian movies, but the nails have been hammered into a solid structure that satisfyingly does the job, and we all need to feel self-righteous rage against older authority figures from time to time…
Words by Mike Record