Friday, March 21, 2014

DIVERGENT Does Not Diverge From Formula

The first thing that one notices about Divergent, directed by Neil Burger, is how similar it is in framework and plot to The Hunger Games. The story revolves around an in-over-her-head heroine who exists in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian landscape populated by citizens who are grouped off in some fashion. Said heroine must fight for survival against a fascistic system. While the comparison is arguably inevitable, it is hardly a fair one; especially since Divergent is alternatively superior and inferior to the other.
Based on the first of the Veronica Roth series of novels, Divergent tells the story of Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) a resident of the walled off city of Chicago whose populace is divided into five "factions": Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. A person’s place in said society is determined at the age of 16 by a battery of hallucinogenic tests, though each person does have a choice as to which faction they wish to belong (though once the choice is made there is no going back). Those that are cannot meet the faction requirements become “factionless”, or society’s refuse. However, there exist those rare individuals known as “divergents” who cannot be typed into any faction. These beings are a danger to a society whose very existence is predicated on one “knowing their place”. Tris is one such “divergent”. As the story progresses, Tris tries to conceal her divergent nature even as a war between the factions begins to brew.
Quest for identity, distrust of authority, and fear confrontation…these are all unifying themes across the young adult storytelling spectrum. However, what separates Divergent (in film, at least, since I have not read the source material) from other similar films is how personal these themes are explored. Though she does face external foes, Tris’ conflicts are more internal and personal, more human than super-human. The physical challenges she faces are simply extensions of the conflicts within her.  Unfortunately, the bulk of the film’s two hour, twenty minute running time is devoted to her training and not enough of the greater conflict regarding faction war. Despite the film’s version of the “Wall of the North” and the blitzkrieg aesthetic, any sense of danger or oppression is oddly muted given the subject matter. This is not to say that the film doesn’t deliver emotional hits. This film has plenty of rousing highs and emotional lows (and “squeal” moments for the tweens) that are deftly directed for visceral heft; but sporadic moments of brilliance do not make for a complete whole.  The film, while still somewhat entertaining, is narratively disjointed. There is very little by way of surprises with certain story beats predictably foreshadowed. On the plus side, there is an impressive attention to even the smallest details wherein nothing seems discordant or out of place.  The special effects are, in one of those rare cases, virtually flawless.  The score by Junkie XL works well in conjunction with the requisite pop offerings these types of films are peppered with.
Shailene Woodley gives a credible performance as Tris, going from unsure ingĂ©nue to capable, if not confident, warrior. She anchors the film quite well, though it doesn’t give her much to work with on an emotional level until rather late in the story, and the film suffers for that. As her instructor/love interest Four, Theo James is eerily reminiscent to a very young Billy Zane, charmingly imbuing his character with a smoldering taciturnity belying secret pain that simmers beneath the surface. One of the most laudable aspects of this film, and rare to find in modern cinema, is the sense of true equality between their characters. While Tris is the protagonist, she is not a “messiah” figure.  Both she and Four take turns in supporting and saving each other.  Neither one is either a “Lois Lane” or “Steve Trevor”. The partnership between the two is a true one; each one aids and compliments the other and both characters are the stronger for it.
Jai Courtney portrays instructor Eric with hard but wry sadism. Ashley Judd appears as Tris’ mother, and the casting predictably telegraphs the character’s fate. Lastly, Kate Winslet portrays Janine, leader of Erudite faction and requisite “big baddie”, with detached banality; which is perhaps the point. This story is a cautionary allegory for where our society may be headed and, as such, makes it a point to show that evil rarely comes with hands wringing or mustaches twirling.
Ultimately, Divergent is definitely a film for the pre – to – teen set.  However, there is much within the film for adults to enjoy but not enough to make it a wholly rousing experience. While the film does leave enough open for the inevitable sequel (currently in production now), it works enough as a somewhat satisfying, stand-alone movie. While Divergent is a good film, it’s not as good it could have been. Yet, because of it's emphasis of Tris' attempts to overcome her own inner doubts and fears in her quest for self-actualization, the film has more weighty depth, in my opinion, than The Hunger Games. While adults will like it, teens will love it.