When author Veronica Roth wrote her first full-length novel, Divergent, she was only twenty-one. By the time she graduated from Northwestern University she already had a number one New York Times bestselling novel on her hands, and that’s remarkable.
Hollywood wasn’t far behind. After the enormous, big screen commercial success of the young adult fantasy fiction such as the Twilight series, The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, Hollywood, forever on the lookout for something new that resembles the successful familiar, bought the rights to Roth’s work. Now, the first of the Divergent trilogy is here, and it arrives with a muted thud.
“They say the war was terrible,” lead character, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) tells us as we float over the decimated remains of what was once Chicago. A hundred years later, long after the war, buildings are still in ruins, water beds are dry, and there’s a huge scaffolding-like barrier that surrounds what is left of the city. It’s an impressive opening shot and sets the tone for what we will discover is a bleak and dehumanized future for what is left of the human race; at least, that is, for those who live in the Chicago area. What’s happening everywhere else is never mentioned. If it is, I missed it.
The basic plot is not complicated, but its design is full of busy, futuristic, dystopian details, all of which feel oddly familiar but with different titles. The society of the future as displayed here is a place where everyone serves a purpose. At the age of sixteen, each teenager has to take an aptitude test; a drug-infused affair where they’re given a hallucinogenic that should reveal which of the five designated factions, or societal divisions, they’re best suited. The five factions have clumsy names, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, Dauntless and Candor, each one serving a specific purpose that enables society to get along. But there’s trouble in dystopia.
There are two other factions that just get in the way. They are the Factionless, people who can serve no purpose and remain poor and homeless, or the Divergents, those who show an aptitude for not one but all factions, and they’re considered dangerous. They’re not dangerous because of temper or a need to rule or anything particularly evil or destructive, they simply can’t be controlled, they possess individual thought, and that’s what makes them a danger.
With all this obvious intelligence and man-power still in existence, you’d think that society would also have room for two to other factions; Wrecking Crews and Construction Builders. This is, after all, a hundred years after a great war, you’d think that someone with all these futuristic abilities and computer systems would have had the time and the bright idea of rebuilding a few things. If someone could build that huge construction around the city to keep everyone in, surely they would have also built a more comfortable and cleaner place in which to live.
“The test didn’t work on you,” Tori (Maggie Q) informs young Beatrice, and goes on to tell the teenager that she is a Divergent, one who can’t be controlled. And the groundwork is set. Our heroine is one that the authorities – in this case, an evil, conniving Kate Winslet – fear the most. “Human nature is the enemy,” Winslet’s character tells Beatrice, echoing shades of 1984.
All of this, by the way, is merely the introduction. What follows is a ceremony where each teenager gravitates to whatever faction they are best suited. Then they take their place in society. Beatrice surprises her family, and perhaps herself, by choosing Dauntless, a kind of teenage police force used to keep order but where its members appear to spend most of their time giving each other intimidating tattoos and piercings, fighting, and jumping on and off moving trains. Evidently, if you’re a member of Dauntless you can’t walk anywhere; you run, jump, and leap like kangaroos all over the place, and any other member of society who gets in your way becomes collateral damage; even if they’re the ones Dauntless is supposed to be protecting.
Shailene Woodley is an outstanding talent. Her work in the recent The Spectacular Now was so good as the nice-girl-next-door role it becomes difficult to immediately accept her as a leaping, running, jumping member of Dauntless. The illusion of toughness creeps in as the film continues, but unlike Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games where you bought her ability to survive from the beginning, Woodley doesn’t fully convince. What holds the film together are the performances of the supporting players. Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, and Maggie Q all leave suitably rich impressions in smaller roles, while Kate Winslet plays her cold, calculating villainess role with just the right touch of iciness.
The real issue is the set up. As already stated, it truly is remarkable to have someone so young to have written such an expansive set of novels, but you don’t have to look far to notice the origins. It may not have been obvious when reading prose, but played out on film you can see the influences of all previous young adult fiction and certain other works rolled into one. When Beatrice chooses Dauntless it’s like Harry Potter choosing Gryffindor, and the training and dystopian – as opposed to a utopian – future is reminiscent of The Hunger Games. Divergent is a hybrid of all those works. Plus, like Twilight and The Hobbit series, Divergent is bloated. The first hour is Beatrice’s training; only it feels longer. Only the last thirty minutes kicks in with something solid, everything else is a long way to establishing the setup and it feels like padding.
There’ll be two more. Now that conflicts are in place, perhaps the following can concentrate on a plot.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 143 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)