The graveyard of films based on ‘young adult’ (YA) book properties is getting close to hanging up a ‘no vacancy’ sign with the arrival of Divergent. It’s based on a book series written by Veronica Roth and blah blah blah. We’ve heard these promises of glory before with Beautiful Creatures, Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and The Host, but large book sales doesn’t guarantee a decent film. The Hunger Games managed to hit the sweet spot financially and critically while the Twilight saga’s massive bank haul disguised the smell of a rotting corpse. Divergent lands like a copy of one of those yellow self-help books ‘Dystopia for Dummies’ as it mashes together science fiction/fantasy tropes from the twentieth century with another female lead defined by her romantic aspirations rather than her actions.
In the distant future there has been a great war that has left behind the crumbling city of Chicago where the population is divided into factions based on their personalities: Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave). When young people reach a certain age they are allowed to choose which faction they want to join, but first they are tested (using serums and mind reading devices) to see if they are divergent. The divergent can think independently and the government can't conform their thinking, so they are considered threats to the social order. When Tris (Shailene Woodley) goes to get tested, guess what happens? She’s di-freaking-vergent, and must sneak under the radar of her chosen faction Dauntless, make puppy eyes at the hunky Four (Theo James) while trying to stop a military coup.
From the above plot description you can feel Divergent throbbing with influences. The factions are reminiscent of the sorting hat from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the castes of Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World. The dream machine technology is ripped from Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the yearning for a good looking mysterious fella is all Twilight, and the shady actions of the government and their need for control comes from, well, almost all of the above. If I mention the fingerprints of George Orwell’s 1984 this review may explode. It’s okay to proudly proclaim influences but director, Neil Burger, and screenwriters, Evan Daughtery and Vanessa Taylor, never elevate any of the borrowed ideas or add something new. There is so much being mashed together in Divergent that it begins to show signs of a serious case of obsessive compulsive disorder with a society obsessed with rankings, tests and categorisation. The overall feeling is conformity to boredom, especially from the lethargic action direction by Burger that’s hasty without a hit of adrenaline. The characters are always climbing, running and jumping off everything like they’re running late for a dental appointment.
Daughtery and Taylor’s script is full of exposition and it shows a complete lack of faith in the intellect of the YA audience, who frankly, are consistently undermined and deserve a lot better than the demographic spreadsheet that dictates the beats of Divergent. The world is explained, the class structure is dissected and the story is drip fed in every piece of dialogue. There’s a fight sequence where Tris practically looks into the camera and says to the audience ‘I’m divergent,' as if anyone was still curious. The story remains mostly dormant until the final 20 minutes, and it’s far little too late.
Woodley salvages the film from becoming a complete wreck, and she imbues Tris with the natural curiosity of a teenager exploring the kind of person she wants to be in a world that demands she adapt to their rules. An interesting character begins to develop, strong willed and a tad naïve, but then screenwriting overlords Daughtery and Taylor demand her character’s arc be defined by her relationship with Four who is a masculine piece of dead weight in the narrative. Tris’ progression as an individual is far more engaging than her involvement in a relationship. Especially a union crafted to stress the importance of having a boyfriend. There’s a scene where Tris partners with her mother (the underused Ashley Judd) during a shootout sequence and the power of two strong female characters, as individuals, is shown off nicely but cut off too quickly. It’s fantastic that there are more female led films coming out of the studio system, and Divergent is one of them, but the YA genre desperately needs to shed the mirage of feminine empowerment and actually allow it to happen for once (this is the difference that elevates The Hunger Games above all competitors).
Divergent is another big yawn from the YA stable and with three books in the series there is a giant chasm sized area for improvement.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW