Director: Neil Burger
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Zoe Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd, Mekhi Phifer, Miles Teller, Jai Courtney
Running time: 2 hours 19 minutes
The Divergent movie will not win any Oscars, just like the young adult novel it was adapted from will not win a Pulitzer. But you already knew that, so it’s easy to forgive the film’s (expected) flaws. And while I admit that the movie is not going to stand up to criticism, it kept me hooked like an adrenaline junkie for its entirety.
I read the Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy in about a week, something you can do with most YA novels because, unlike literature, there’s little to make you stop and think. You zoom through the linear rollercoaster plot: action peppered with budding (and inevitably obsessive) romance. This quick and easy pleasure is why franchises like Divergent, The Hunger Games, and Twilight are so popular. It’s also why they're so adaptable—they’re action movies centered around insecure teens instead of macho terminators.
The film breezes over the story’s post-apocalyptic premise: After human nature was deemed too destructive and civilization fell into a state of perpetual war, society was organized into five factions based on traits: Amity (kindness), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), and Dauntless (bravery). Those who fail to fit into one of the factions are known as Divergent and pose a danger to the system. The movie version doesn’t offer much in the way of character development, but it gets right into the action, and that’s for the better.
The plot follows Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), a Divergent who was raised in Abnegation but chose to become a Dauntless. As she attempts to pass initiation into her new faction, she's tasked with a set of trials that involve shooting targets, throwing knives, hand-to-hand combat, jumping off moving trains, and a terrifying version of capture the flag. There’s something addictive about the on-screen Dauntless energy (even if comes with a jarring dubstep soundtrack), and you can’t help but feel Tris’ adrenaline pumping in your own ears when she flies down a zipline across Chicago’s skyscrapers.
When Tris swayed on the top of a Ferris wheel, I felt dizzy. When she stood in front of a knife thrower, I was nervous. Yes, even though I knew what would happen. Her reckless abandon made me want to join Dauntless, though I can guarantee you I wouldn’t make it past the first challenge.
In some ways, the movie adaptation makes up for what the novel lacks. Roth is not particularly skilled in description. Her text makes it hard to imagine most of the settings, and you just have to go along with the weak logic behind the factions. The film offers a crumbling post-Chicago ringed by an ominous fence and a Dauntless compound that resembles a construction site. It’s satisfying to see the locations come alive, even if it’s not what I imagined.
Of course, it’s undeniable that Tris will get on your nerves. As is the case with most YA protagonists, she fumbles through cringe-worthy scenes of romance and reads off cheesy lines with painful sincerity. Still, when the directors stray from the source text and allow for an off-the-cuff line, it’s genuinely funny. Also, when this little blonde chick beats the crap out of jacked dudes, it’s just fucking awesome.
Tris’ love interest, Four (Theo James), does his best to move through the worst of the lines. And at least he has some actual, if awkwardly adolescent, chemistry with Tris (unlike Peeta and Katniss—sorry, the comparison had to be made). While he’s overall a likeable, sexy guy, in one scene, during a simulation that makes you face your greatest fears, Tris imagines Four aggressively forcing himself on her in what looks like an attempted rape. This scene plays out in an alarmingly different way from the book, where Four comes onto Tris playfully, and she overcomes the simulation by laughing it off and telling him she's not going to sleep with him. While it makes sense that a woman’s greatest fear is rape, imagining that it's her boyfriend as the aggressor is problematic. When Four does attack Tris at the end of the film (he’s being controlled through a toxic serum), she says “I love you” to make him regain his senses—not the best message for couples in abusive relationships. Although the director, Neil Burger, was clearly going for heightened stakes, this was a bad decision.
Down to the very sentence structure, YA novels don't let the reader pause. Divergent, which is written in the present tense, basically reads like, “I do this. I feel this. I do this. I feel this.” It's often counted as a strike against the literary value of the book, but the breakneck pace is also exactly what makes the movie so enjoyable. When Four attacked Tris, I put on the breaks, stopping to think, “What the fuck is this?” The movie was presenting me with an alarming situation too heavy with baggage for what the movie had been up until that point—and then it never bothered to unpack that baggage. It didn't handle the situation with the intelligence and seriousness it demanded. Had the film maintained its pace and its tone throughout, that scene—handled differently—would’ve been one in a flow of action sequences.
I realize that saying by Divergent shouldn’t give you time to think means it’s not a very good movie, and I agree that it's far from perfect. But despite the heavy clichés and barely passable dialogue, I was still swept up in the action.
My advice for fans: See it in 3D, drink a couple of beers beforehand, and don’t be too critical. Like the Dauntless jumping off a train onto a roof, Divergent is ridiculous and senseless and over the top, but you still want to take the leap.
Written by Leigh Silver (@leigh_silver)