Close but No Cigar: ‘Divergent’ Review

Divergent directed by Neil Burger, is a good movie. But in a world where films like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire exists, good just isn’t good enough anymore. It may not be fair to compare the two, but it is inevitable; all young adult novels seem to get lumped together nowadays to see how much they look like Harry Potter (the gold standard), The Huger Games (right on), or the Twilight Saga (God forbid).  Divergent  feels like The Hunger Games lite; parts of the story especially early on seem dumbed down or glossed over. It reminded me of the Battlestar Galactica quote: “All of this will happen before and all of it will happen again.” Nothing we see is particularly new or exciting; the elements are mostly familiar with a few different details thrown in. The strong performances by the cast are what stop this film from falling completely into the Twilight category.

We see the development of Tris’ (Shailene Woodley) world early on as she explains in a voice over the nature of the factions and

why they were created. There doesn’t seem to be enough world building; we know Tris and her family belong to the grey clad Abnegation, the faction of the selfless, but besides the fact that they can’t look into mirrors we don’t understand much about the faction differences. It makes it harder to compare her new life to the old one since we don’t have much to go on. We also see the Choosing Ceremony, where much like the Sorting Ceremony, children are sorted into groups based on their virtues. Although in Divergent’s case the teens get to pick where they end up, leading Tris to leave her boring family and head for the more exciting, train jumping Dauntless faction. Or at least that is how the film makes it seem.

Once in Dauntless headquarters we see Tris make new friends (and enemies), adapt to her new life (What is this strange food called a hamburger?), and go through training montages where she learns to fight and shoot guns. Again these scenes are nothing new and since there doesn’t seem to be a Hunger Games coming up there is a lack of urgency to all this. Some may even wonder why Dauntless have to go through all of this training so Four (Theo James, doing the Brit-trying-to-hide-his-accent-grumble) causally mentions that the reason the Dauntless have to train so hard and do all of these crazy things is because it is their job to protect the city. Okay, I guess that makes sense.

=Being a good protector apparently?

It was during the scene when the second round of initiation started where I realized there was still SO. MUCH. story left. All of the good stuff hadn’t even happened! This film may have been only 2 ½ hours long, but it felt longer, especially in these middle parts. Sometimes that’s the problem with knowing the books; you can track where the story is going so you know how much is left. Honestly, I thought they were going to cut out some key book moments because the film seemed like it was toning down some of the action to fit the younger demographic that seems drawn to this series. I was happily surprised though when the later parts of the film kicked up the intensity.

The second half of the film has much better pacing, action, and emotion. The only thing I didn’t like was the randomly thrown in plot points where a character would show up and be like, “Oh here we forgot to mention this so we’re going to do it now.” That happened more than once. At least the last big fight scene is strong with an emotional punch (pun intended). However, we are quickly taken out of the impact of these final scenes with a hokey, Tris narrated voice over ending telling us nothing we needed to know. I have to admit I almost laughed out loud, especially when the music started. The score of Divergent by Junkie XL has some really lovely moments featuring a mix of instrumental and electronic sounds, but the tracks featuring Ellie Goulding are too pop-ey. Her voice is so distinctive that it takes the viewer out of the action and reminds them they are watching a film, one where a prominent artist from our present is featured in this futuristic dystopia. Where Arcade Fire’s music fit seamlessly into the not-so-distant future of Her, Goulding’s music sticks out like a Stiff in Dauntless.

The best part of this film by far is Shailene Woodley. She has come a long way from her ABC Family Secret Life of the American Teenager days. Woodley fits the character of Tris perfectly; she is ordinary, but with something off-beat and interesting about her. She’s not the Jennifer Lawrence style girl next door, she’s more like the girl next next door who you don’t quite know and try to peak in her window as you drive by her house. These little quirks make it understandable why someone like Four would be attracted to her. Speaking of Tris and Four, the way their romance is portrayed in the film comes off as rather generic; we believe in it because Woodley and James are good actors, not because they have that special spark that some couples have on screen.

The rest of the cast including Zoe Kravitz as Christina, Ben Lloyd-Hughes as Will, and Christian Madsen as Al are decent, but they work better than an ensemble than individuals. Miles Teller is miscast as Peter; he lacks the complete evil and complexity the character had in the books and becomes merely an ordinary name calling bully. Kate Winslet is good as Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews, but when you’re Kate Winslet you’re always good (and you’ve done much better). It is a major score to get someone of her caliber to appear in these films though. The best casting by far other than Tris is Jai Courtney as Eric, who delivers his performance with a cold, simmering anger and perfectly placed tattoos.

If you liked the Divergent book chances are you will like the film. It’s a fun and action-packed, but does not leave much of an overall impression. I know I’ll see Insurgent because I did read all the books and like to see them translated onto the big screen, but I am not nearly as excited for that film as I am for Mockingjay.

Rating:

soggy(3.5)

Final Words

  • There were actually some really funny moments in this film that surprised me so Divergent also has that going for it
  • I’m 85% sure that the first person to come out of the door onto the roof during the zip-ling scene is Divergent author Veronica Roth making a cameo
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