“Divergent” is my favorite kind of movie, and though it shares a fair amount of DNA in common with “The Hunger Games,” it ranks as far superior in my book. Granted, on this opinion, I clearly diverge from the vast majority of film critics — and perhaps a good many fans as well.
So allow me to explain.
When I go to the movies, I want to be transported someplace completely new, immersed in that world and compelled to identify with the characters I meet there. This is a broad enough definition to encompass nearly all movies, from “Wall-E” to “March of the Penguins,” but you might be surprised how few actually succeed at meeting this relatively simple goal.
“Divergent” does. How? Simple — so simple, I wish more filmmakers would study this trick, make note of it and incorporate it into their own films: Take a character, the more naive or inexperienced the better, put her (or him) in an unfamiliar situation and tell the story from her point of view. When done well, this tactic never gets old, and it makes all the difference between “sit back” movies (escapist fantasies that we watch like passive observers) and “lean forward” experiences (where we engage directly with what’s onscreen).
Think about it: This strategy is what makes “The Bourne Identity” one of the most visceral action movies in decades — amnesia being an incredibly convenient device for putting us on a character’s level. But it also works on the arthouse end of the spectrum, when foreign films offer up identifiable protagonists struggling to navigate unfamiliar environments, such as Saudi Arabian “Wadjda,” in which a girl tests the limits of a society that forbids her desire to own a bicycle, or Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” where intimate closeups bring us inside the emotional headspace of a teenager experiencing her first lesbian love affair.
You don’t even have to stick with the character in question for the whole journey. “Mad Men” didn’t. If you go back to the first episode of the first season, you’ll see that it privileges Peggy’s p.o.v. — a clever way of inviting audiences to discover Don Draper and his retro Madison Ave. advertising world through the eyes of the firm’s newest employee.
In “Divergent,” the story focuses on Beatrice Prior, AKA Tris, whom we meet on the eve of her “Choosing Day” and whom we follow — though I think “become” would be a better word, since Shailene Woodley is a wonderfully identifiable actress, and director Neil Burger puts us in her head the whole way — through the consequences of her choice. Now, plenty of critics complained that it takes almost two hours for the action to kick in. For the record, I am 100% OK with that. The last half hour of “Divergent” — the half hour those people so badly want more of — is the part that I’ve seen countless times before (and frankly, the way Burger handles the finale, it looks a little too much like a bunch of kids playing Lazer Tag in some empty Chicago warehouses).
By contrast, I would’ve been happy to spend the whole movie in Exposition mode — that’s what the detractors consider all that extraneous downtime before the story kicks in. We believers describe it as “Worldbuilding,” a concept invented by classic sci-fi writers and all but perfected in the decades since by videogame designers. In both arenas, the creators must invent a world from scratch, think through the “rules” that govern it and find an effective way to communicate them.
The most effective way is exactly as I’ve just described: Give us a character to identify with and then invite us to figure things out vicariously through them. This is the reason why videogames, in which we literally assume control of someone in an unfamiliar world, devote their first few levels to letting players figure out how things work. There’s an art to doing this as smoothly and intuitively as possible, and someone like James Cameron is a master of this approach, whether our avatar is the lower-class stowaway through whose eyes we discover “Titanic” or the 10-foot, blue-skinned Na’vi of “Avatar.”
In “Divergent,” Tris is a bright and resourceful character who nimbly adapts to each new challenge that’s put before her. When she chooses to join the Dauntless faction, we learn the rules right alongside her — from that first rooftop-jump through the MacGyver-like behavior that gets her through her final test. It’s exciting to spend time in such a space, where the filmmakers respect the intelligence of both their protagonist and the audience.
Katniss Everdeen is written that way in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” (first person, present tense), but the film somehow botches this sense of connection, failing to let audiences inside her head. Instead, director Gary Ross forces us to remain bystanders to the story — ultimately closer to the fabulous, bloodthirsty mob that follows along from the Capitol than we are to Jennifer Lawrence’s character. Meanwhile, he overcompensates with clumsy external tricks, like using shaky camerawork to suggest the agitation of the lottery scene. Katniss may be a strong heroine, but she’s not especially relatable in the film, and it’s nearly impossible to read how she feels toward her two love interests. (The sequel fixes these problems, elegantly identifying with Katniss as the game makers rewrite the rules.)
“Divergent” gets it right. Movies aren’t nearly as interesting to watch as they are to experience, and Burger gives us the chance to identify with Tris on multiple levels: There’s her connection to her family, the decision of her future, the dangerous initiation rites required to join Dauntless and even a sizzling romantic dynamic with Four (Theo James), a handsome character who helps her along without bumping Tris from the driver’s seat of her own story. Through it all, “Divergent’s” message is clear: Tris is different from the others. She’s special. And because of the vicarious way Burger involves us in her journey, by extension, so are we.
Did I mention that “Divergent” is my favorite kind of movie?