Even though it stretches to nearly two-and-a-half hours and concludes with an extended gun battle, by the time “Divergent” ends, it still seems to be in the process of clearing its throat. Blame it on burdensome commercial expectations, perhaps: Adapted from the first novel in Veronica Roth’s blockbuster YA series, this film has clearly been designated an heir apparent to Summit-Lionsgate’s massively lucrative teen-targeted “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” properties. Yet director Neil Burger seems so concerned with laying franchise groundwork that he neglects to create an engaging standalone movie, and “Divergent’s” uncertain sense of setting, bloated plot, drab visual style and solid yet underwhelming lead turns from Shailene Woodley and Theo James don’t necessarily make the best case for series newcomers. Fans of the books will turn out for what should be a very profitable opening weekend, but with future installments already on the release calendar, the film’s B.O. tea leaves will surely be read with care.
While the obvious takeaway from the successes of “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” would seem to be that properties once considered the domain of teenage girls have every bit as much crossover potential as those marketed to their brothers, a number of studios have instead simply opted to stripmine serialized young-adult fiction for stories with superficially similar elements. Set in a dystopian society with a “chosen one” heroine and prominent time given over to a moony, chaste romance, “Divergent” certainly fits that bill.
The film takes place in a decaying futuristic version of Chicago, where society has reorganized itself into five distinct factions based on personality types, and named after words that “Divergent’s” target audience will soon need to learn for their SATs: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. (Why some factions are named with adjectives and others with nouns is a mystery that future installments will hopefully unravel.)
Speaking of the SAT, a standardized test is of paramount importance to teenage life in the film’s universe as well. At the age of 16, all youths must pick the faction where they will spend the rest of their lives, after a hallucinatory exam recommends where they are best suited. Of course, the results are secret, the test-takers are free to choose whichever faction they like, and the majority simply elect to stay right where they were born, which does call into question the test’s importance.
Protagonist Beatrice Prior (Woodley) is the daughter of an Abnegation official (Tony Goldwyn) who lives with her nurturing mother (Ashley Judd) and twin brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort). She has never felt at ease with her faction’s modest, self-denying lifestyle, and when she takes the test, her results prove inconclusive, suggesting she’s equally adept at three different skillsets. Her tester (Maggie Q) hurries her out of the building, explaining that she is a rare species of “Divergent,” and must keep this information secret lest terrible consequences befall her. This is the first of many doom-laden warnings she’ll be given by characters who don’t have the time to explain them in any detail.
When Choosing Day arrives, the Prior twins shock the whole city by both opting for new factions. Caleb selects the snobbish Erudite faction, lead by the oleaginous, power-hungry Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet, doing what sounds conspicuously close to a Hillary Clinton impression). Beatrice defects to the warrior class Dauntless, a whooping, hollering, aerially detraining bunch with a fashion aesthetic that falls midway between “UFC fighter” and “Hot Topic clerk.”
Initiation into the new faction begins immediately, and Beatrice (now taking on the newer, hipper name of Tris) finds herself taking skyscraper trust falls and participating in brutal sparring matches with fellow initiates. She soon learns that those who fail to pass muster with the Dauntless clique are cast out (un-Daunted?) to join the untouchable “factionless” caste who live on the streets. Further complicating matters is her pair of bickering instructors: the hunky, granite-jawed Four (Theo James) — who shoots Tris the sort of pensive glances that suggest he’s struggling to decide on a font for their wedding invitations — and the serpentine Eric (Jai Courtney).
Meanwhile, as the initiation rituals take up most of the film’s focus, a power struggle deepens between Erudite and Abnegation, and Tris slowly starts to piece together why being outed as Divergent could prove so perilous.
If the story seems to be diverging into too many narrative factions at once, indeed it is. And by trying to cram in as many explanatory info dumps as possible, Burger neglects to tend to the elements of the film that could easily make up for any narrative deficiencies: namely, a sense of place and a feeling of urgency.
Despite all the tidings of war and eminent threat of banishment, the initiates rarely seem particularly nervous. It doesn’t help that scripters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor excise a number of the darker sequences from Roth’s book, while Burger conspires to show nothing more sanguinary than minor nosebleeds and bruises for the first two acts, even when characters are putting each other into the hospital with great regularity. And for a hyper-militarized, technologically advanced, segregated dystopian society on the verge of factional conflict, the city’s various zones seem to have all the security and surveillance capacity of a Club Med.
Unlike the “Harry Potter” series’ tangible, fully dimensional Hogwarts or “The Hunger Games’” colorfully variegated districts, “Divergent’s” vision of new Chicago doesn’t have much to distinguish it from a standard-issue post-apocalyptic pic. Shot on location in the Windy City, the film rarely lingers for too long on urban exterior environments, with interiors sometimes appearing very much like soundstages, and the decor in the Dauntless faction’s social hub, dubbed “the Pit,” looks like it might well have been leftover from a Syfy original movie that shot there the week before.
Tackling her first leading role in a project of this size, Woodley can be wonderful when she’s allowed to show a bit of sass, but while she easily nails the film’s most emotional, actorly moments, her Tris hasn’t quite fully gelled as an autonomous character. Woodley’s “The Spectacular Now” co-star, Miles Teller, gets most of the film’s laughs as Tris’ antagonistic fellow initiate, while her friends played by Zoe Kravitz and Ben Lloyd-Hughes are left mostly spinning their wheels.
Though its largely handheld camerawork is always competent, the film displays an ungainly sort of beige sheen throughout: Backgrounds often appear washed-out and featureless, and actors’ faces sometimes display the lifeless aspect of overdone digital touchups. A trance-infused score by Junkie XL is appropriately youthful, while music supervisor Randall Poster has assembled a clever collection of indie rock, electronica and hip-hop.