Film Review: ‘Divergent’

Divergent Movie

This latest attempt to cash in on the YA craze fails to work as an engaging standalone movie.

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.

Film Review: 'Divergent'

Reviewed at AMC Century City 15, March 13, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 140 MIN.

Production

A Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment release of a Summit Entertainment presentation of a Red Wagon Entertainment production. Produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian. Executive producers, John J. Kelly, Rachel Shane. Co-producer, Veronica Roth.

Crew

Directed by Neil Burger. Screenplay, Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor, from the book by Veronica Roth. Camera (Deluxe color), Alwin Kuchler; editors, Richard Francis-Bruce, Nancy Richardson; music, Junkie XL; music supervisor, Randall Poster; production designer, Andy Nicholson; art director, Patrick Sullivan; set decorator, Anne Kuljian; costume designer, Carlo Poggiolo; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), David Obermeyer; supervising sound editors, Wylie Stateman, Harry Cohen; re-recording mixers, Mike Prestwood Smith, Michael Keller; special effects supervisor, Yves DeBono; senior visual effects supervisor, Jim Berney; visual effects, Method Studios, Scanline VFX, Soho VFX, Wormstyle, CoSA VFX, Lola VFX; stunt coordinator/second unit director, Garrett Warren; assistant directors, Vincent Lascoumes, Artist Robinson; second unit camera, Jake Polonsky, Paul Hughen; casting, Mary Vernieu, Venus Kanani.

With

Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet.

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  1. Mia Jay says:

    Sooo, I’m confused. in the beginning you say that the movie STRETCHED two and a half hours, but toward the end say they crammed too much in a short period of time. I don’t understand why so many people have a problem with this movie, I don’t think it’s bad, and I don’t think it has any relevance or connection to the Hunger Games like everyone says.

  2. Jamal Heiden says:

    That was an awesome an accurate review. Maybe the sequel will be better, I didn’t much like the first Hunger Games, but I think the second one might have been the film of the year (that’s right American Hustle is awful and Wolf is just ok, as are the rest). I will upload my podcast review in a couple of hours at: http://www.looktothecookie.org

  3. Amy A says:

    great review! “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” HILARIOUS!

  4. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Most poison pop culture for toxic millennials. I wouldn’t spend a bathroom break on the waste of time it took to write this review. LOL!

  5. tayoamos says:

    After seeing the film last night, I was wracking my brain figuring out why the film wasn’t successful. I read the series and felt it would be great for the screen but last night, I felt like I needed more. This review was spot on as to why – with the production design, acting, and other components. I would add that the electronic music (esp by Ellie Goulding) felt a little misplaced and seemed like commercial product placement.

    I really believe in the story and the series but hopefully the next 2 films will be well-executed under the healm of a more competent director.

  6. marco says:

    ‘The Vision’ played by Vin Diesel can take the AVENGERS 2 to a bigger success than first movie? ★ http://opi.cc/V8I8966yR5z2y9b4

  7. Kat says:

    From what I’ve read in the more negative reviews that have been published so far (which admittedly are not terribly negative, just not particularly positive), the biggest issues the reviewers have are tied into the source material: elements of the plot and worldbuilding, and the pacing of the story. These are things pertaining to the way the book was written, as it appears the movie follows the narrative the way it unfolded in the book. Perhaps they would do well not to follow the book’s plotline that closely but take the general storyline and tweak it so it translates better in movie form.

  8. Kath says:

    If the job “Abigail Rose” does astroturfing this thread is indicative of the quality of the movie (and by extension the books), I can only assume Lionsgate’s decision to issue a dividend is pre-emptive damage control so shareholders won’t run to Icahn when they write-down Divergent.

  9. ado says:

    I smell the wiff of a flop like Mortal Instruments on this one. I would not count on a sequel.

  10. Schmuly says:

    Tris dies in book 3

  11. The retired school landlords insurance principal was found in a freezer at The
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    tenant. The stars of India: It’s all the Raj to warm up your
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  12. Bob says:

    I’m sorry but they needed a better director in my opinion, hopefully the new director can make Insurgent ( the best book ) into a fantastic movie and find a way to turn Allgiant ( sorry if spelled wrong ) into something fans can love

  13. Ya Adaption of the book movie Hall of FAME! says:

    I like Divergence, it’s a very very very nice movie of a book film adaption of words! I can’t wait till the all new sequel.. Convergent! What happens when Tris and Caleb the Jungle Twins, find out the TRUTH! What will happens when Tori exposes the truth about 90210 she’s S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G it out for you! Who knows??? When Four becomes Three and Christina comes one of Lenny Kravitz kiz..Zoë!

    What Makes You Different, Makes You Dangerous – you may be one of the Clooney Decedents!

  14. Abigail Rose. says:

    Hello, I would just like to point out that you neglected to read the book and understand that the Prior twins are indeed not TWINS. Caleb is about 10 to 11 months older than Tris. It is a very action packed movie and is very understandable if you fail to understand the complex themes of the movie and book. It is a very complicated concept that not everyone may be able to understand. If you would like to email me with any questions I would love to answer them and hopefully explain the topic more so you can understand. I would like you to understand first before you judge anything. Trust me I will help you.

    • Divergence says:

      The reason they were turned into twins its because this doesn’t make sense in the book.

      How convenient that both Tris and Caleb were born in those dates, just to fit perfectly with the one date from when they have to chose their faction.

      Veronica Roth it’s such a sucky writer, but I’m not amazed every kid wants to be part of this. Sure we don’t know what ‘abdnegation’ or ‘divergent’ means, but let’s say this book its exceptional!

    • adria259 says:

      Have you ever heard of “irish twins”? “Irish twins” describe two people born to the same mother in the same calendar year or within 12 months of each other.

  15. david says:

    Knowing that Tris dies a mindless death in the next book of the Trilogy, Allegiant, is a downer for me and gives me no reason to watch this movie. It only gets worse.

    • Abigail Rose. says:

      Hello I would like to tell you that the second book in the series is Insurgent and the most amazing Beatrice Prior is not dead till the third book and I would like to say thank you if you read my comment.

  16. Marianne says:

    This review brings up all the things I found problematic when i was reading the book, so it seems like the movie has made the plotholes even more obvious. Never really expected much from this movie, but damn, i guess it was that bad, huh?

  17. Kyle says:

    This movie was phenomenal and I find your review of Divergent highly offensive. You are making assumptions about the future of YA adaptations and I would suggest reading the book before seeing the movie. Yes the movie can stand alone on it’s own, but reading the book gives you a further insight of it. Just wait until it is released and tops the box office week after week.

    • Johnnie says:

      “This review is offensive to me.” (PLUS) “I work in the movie theater business” (EQUALS) HOW DARE VARIETY SAY BAD THINGS ABOUT A MOVIE THAT NEEDS TO PERFORM WELL TO HELP MY MOVIE THEATER BUSINESS!!! THIS REVIEW IS OFFENSIVE!!! DON’T READ IT!!! JUST COME TO AN OVERPRICED THEATER, BUY SOME OVERPRICED POPCORN, ENDURE KIDS ON THEIR CELLPHONES AND KEEP THEATERS IN BUSINESS!!!!
      OFFENSIVE!!!!!!!!

    • Abigail Rose. says:

      I agree Kyle okay weird question for you are you a fanboy or fangirl because I just wanted to know if there were any fanboys but even if you are a girl, you are absolutely right. Thanks for being smart. Email yukifretz@yahoo.com if you want to chat about it.

    • diana says:

      I read the book and find this review spot on. It captures the flaws and the weaknesses of the storyline. It was a slow read for me as I found the theme and plot too far fetched. I wanted to see the movie in the hopes that the filmmakers could make it better than the book but it looks like it is even more drab and boring.

      • Abigail Rose. says:

        Really? I love everything about this. Thiscomment is highly offensive, like being racist so just STOP.

    • monsinyana says:

      You should thank God or the Universe that you have such an easy life when the thing that “highly offends” you is a movie review. You live a blessed existence of abundance.

      • Kyle says:

        I don’t think this comment was directed to me, but I work in the movie theater business so it’s actually my job to be invested in movies so yes I am proud to say that this article offended me.

  18. Ab says:

    Ha. I can’t wait until it bombs in the second week and Shailene Woodley can wipe the smug smile of her dumb up her own ass hipster self. Twihards have no interest in seeing it ever since she stated that we were too stupid and dumb because apparently we liked a “toxic” story that offered no evolvement to the world. Ha, I am enjoying these reviews!

    • Abigail Rose. says:

      Not to be offensive but I have read the twilight books and they are interesting but a little boring I can just tell you that this movie will be anything but boring. Go out and see it. And that is most likely gossip.

  19. Mosselight says:

    until I looked at the paycheck that said $4916 , I did not believe that my mother in law was like they say truly taking home money parttime from their computer. . there neighbor has been doing this less than 12 months and resently cleard the loans on there condo and purchased a great new Peugeot 205 GTi . look at here now…………..http://x.co/44PCt

  20. idklol says:

    tbh i trust a fan of the books more than an old “professional” critic

    • Abigail Rose. says:

      Smart, just smart. I am a fan and can tell you much.

    • Michelle says:

      A fan of the books is the last person I’d trust to give an honest opinion about an adaptation. They are naturally biased, whether they mean to be or not. As a fan of the books myself, I have been eagerly awaiting the release of “real” reviews from non-fan critics. I’m curious as to how this movie, and this story, would be received by “regular” people.

      • idklol says:

        well i trust a fan more because I’m a fan myself and if a fan likes it then i’ll probably like it which is what matters. i don’t need old people deciding what’s good and what’s not

  21. Bernadette says:

    I really hated how all this review did was compare it to other movies. Its unique and does not need a comparison

  22. xh0146 says:

    While it got off to a slow start, I thought it was excellent. The characters are likeable and realistic. I’m not a big crier, but I found myself crying during certain scenes. I thought the movie was well acted, and that the cinematography was beautiful. I went with someone who usually dislikes such movies, but she enjoyed it. I think that they did a good job adapting the book.

  23. Chelsea says:

    Sounds awesome, this is going to be epic cant wait to see this.

    • xh0146 says:

      I saw the movie, the word twins wasn’t even said

      • adria259 says:

        In the book, it’s sorta mentioned how close in age Tris and Caleb are, so I believe they’re supposed to be what’s called “irish twins”.

      • Mare says:

        Was the movie worth it? and they don’t say twins because they are not twins , who ever wrote this review needs to get their facts straight.

  24. Luce says:

    Shame because I preferred this book over Hunger Games. Will still see it.

  25. Alex says:

    I would sell all my stock in Woodley, I don’t get her or the hype.

  26. xh0146 says:

    They aren’t twins. They were born in the same year, so they did the ceremony at the same time. Caleb is older.

  27. John Shea says:

    I get the impression Mr. Barker did not enjoy this movie…

  28. I have been saying it since August: the hottest practitioners of science fiction (I.e. Neill Blomkamp, Rian Johnson, Zack Snyder, Francis Lawrence, Guillermo Del Toro, Joss Whedon) are all laughing their butts off right now.

    I ate my words when “The Hunger Games” franchise came out; it was well acted, smart and stylish, and took advantage of the book while appealling to newcomers. But not this time. “Divergent” looks and will be awful the whole way through.

  29. Ashley says:

    If you don’t shut the fuck up about this movie, I will come to your house and burn it down with lemons. The movie will be fantastic! Shut the fuck up and go set in solitude with your egotistical self. You monster!

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