The formula is simple enough: take a best-selling dystopian young adult fiction book, pitch it to producers, throw in a strong female lead and some teenage romance for good measure, and expect millions of dollars rolling in at the box office. Or at least, this is what Lionsgate producers are aiming for, another billion-dollar success akin to The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.
But is the film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” an original take on dystopian YA drama or does it only add to the exhausting parade of movies that play the teenagers + romance+ action formula? (Yep, I’m looking at you The Host and The Mortal Instruments)
Divergent isn’t another Hunger Games and Tris Prior isn’t another Katniss Everdeen. This is a good thing and a bad thing.
Beatrice Prior, played by Shailene Woodley, is born in a dystopian Chicago-set society where the people are divided into factions. Each of the factions follow a philosophy that guides their actions and careers: Amity for kindness and hardwork, Erudite for intelligence, Abnegation for selflessness, Candor for honesty, and Dauntless for bravery. At 16, the teens undergo an aptitude test that determines which faction they should belong to. Afterwards, there’s a choosing ceremony allowing them to choose which faction they want to belong to. Beatrice, later renaming herself as Tris, chooses to be in Dauntless in therein starts her journey to self-discovery as a divergent. Meanwhile, amid the physical training and blooming romance with another dauntless member, there’s a revolution threatening to destroy the peace in their community and its up to her and other divergents to stop the pending chaos.
Despite the lead female being a strong actress, there isn’t much for her to work with because the character is too confined. As the story unveils, she appears ill-fitted, trying to be the brave and gutsy heroin yet playing the fragile damsel at the same time. I found this disorienting at times, wondering if she really is a divergent as the movie repeatedly forces her to be.
The romance, one of the obvious “bait em and reel em” for Divergent, feels out of place. Four, played by Theo James, feels like a younger more brutish version of James Franco. He’s obviously hot and has a dazzling smile, but beyond the looks, there’s really not that much juice to his character. Other caricatures in the film are the hard-pressed unsympathetic trainer Eric (Jai Courtney), the leader with the icy facade Jeanine Masterson (Kate Winslet), and the loyal new best friend Christina (Zoe Kravitz). The only other notable performance is by Ashley Judd, who plays Tris’ loving and brave mother, Natalie.
The set pieces are well fleshed out, if not at all impressive. Action sequences are, like The Hunger Games, muted and censored. There’s not much blood or thunk sounds that indicate violence (Lionsgate is obviously keeping it PG13?) But perhaps the biggest setback for the film is its sense of conformity to young adult romance. How ironic that for a movie about non-conformity and individuality, the movie itself succumbs to the norm.
So is “Divergent” worth the movie ticket?
Save this one for Blu-ray. Although I enjoyed watching this alone, obviously because I was carried away by the emotion of the giggling and mooning teens around me, it’s not for high-brow movie buffs who are looking for an entertaining and intelligent take on dystopian action, like Bladerunner. However, if you’re looking for a Saturday movie experience grounded in mindless action and overplayed romance, this might be enjoyable for you.