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Divergent | Review

Dissatisfaction: Burger Launches the Next YA Dystopia to Unwieldy Lengths

Neil Burger Divergent PosterDirector Neil Burger joins genre courting/sci-fi alum Andrew Niccol’s dip into the abscessed pool of the YA cash cow with Divergent, an adaptation of the first in a series of novels by Veronica Roth. A little of this, a little of that, and you’ve got a veritable mash up recent adolescent themed portraits of the future grim in the vein of (the already derivative) Hunger Games trilogy, and even Ender’s Game. Things don’t get better, only increasingly worse, an adage fitting for not only post apocalyptic Western dystopias but the rigidly formulaic and repetitive narratives that are now distended and stretched to epic proportion. Rising star Shailene Woodley gets outfitted with her own treatment of Chosen One Syndrome and delivers a serviceable performance that’s hampered by a ceaselessly workmanlike set-up that obviously thinks its core audience isn’t bright enough to comprehend its concepts efficiently, forgetting that those with discernible attention spans need more substantial material to justify the running time.

It’s the not too distant future and a disastrous war has taken place, isolating large populations to their urban centers. Beatrice (Woodley) resides with her twin brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) in gangrenous, dilapidated Chicago, where the train system seems to run all day without supervision or scheduled stops. Cut off from the rest of the world, in order to maintain the peace, the powers that be have determined a new system where everyone is divided into five factions, comprised of likeminded people that seemingly share the same ideals. Apparently, this wipes out individuality and assimilates everyone and all into a homogenous group.

Beatrice and her family belong to Abnegation, a group which serves as head of government and her pops is kinda like the VP. However, each Chicagoan goes through a ceremony after taking an aptitude test (the results which determine which group they fit into), where they can choose to override the test and join the faction they believe they fit into best. During Beatrice’s aptitude test, her tester (Maggie Q) discovers that Beatrice fits into more than one faction, making her what’s called a ‘divergent,’ and therefore a threat to the system, and means she must be destroyed. But her tester warns her and shoves her out the door, covering up the results, leading Beatrice to choose the raucous Dauntless crew when the time comes. As she suffers the slings and arrows of Dauntless training, a group known for their athletic prowess and lack of fear (meaning no knowledge of self-preservation), the smarty pants faction known as Erudite, led by the nefariously icy Jeanine (Kate Winslet), lead a coup to overthrow the Abnegates, a disruption that threatens to expose the divergent, newly coined Tris, and endanger her developing romance with fellow Abnegate-cum-Dauntless Four (Theo James).

Somewhere between the seemingly unstoppable attraction of Katniss Everdeen and the apathetic malaise of Bella Swan rests Woodley’s grimly determined Tris, a level headed and introspective young woman that isn’t altogether compelling, at least not as she’s presented here (even if Woodley is perhaps deserving of a better script). She’s another carbon copy of the specially equipped girl against the cruel world, the one who we’re all drawn to champion for even before she’s had the chance to gain that adoration. As her brooding male lead, the equally serviceable Theo James plays a dependable love interest, leaving the bitchy asides to a stone faced Jai Courtney. A host of rising stars and B grade notables round out the cast, including Zoe Kravitz (whose dad is in Hunger Games, of course), Miles Teller, Maggie Q, Ashley Judd, and Tony Goldwyn, all generally managing to avoid being ridiculous. An imperious Winslet is the real casting catch here, a role that recalls her Oscar winning role in The Reader, but at least she’s playing a Nazi that’s supposed to be speaking English this time around, looking something like the buttoned up politician version of Ilsa the She-Wolf.

While Burger tapped Alwin H. Kuchler as DP (who has done some fantastic work in fare like Hanna, Sunshine, and Code 46), the look of Divergent is rather drab and uninspired, as we’re trapped mostly in the subterranean training facilities of the Dauntless troupe (led rather distractedly by Mekhi Phifer) where the roundelay of a plot transpires amidst rooms that look more appropriate for a bitching rave. True, at least it looks better assembled than the first installment of The Hunger Games, but even its painstaking and deliberate groundwork to explain its universe only manages to create more questions than it answers, thus establishing a vacuum of silliness leading to a band aid resolution before we’re led to the brink of new dangers for the next installment(s).

As per usual with pop culture inebriated portraits of dystopia, an inappropriate soundtrack comprised of music that clearly brings us back to the modern comforts of where we’re watching it from only serves to shut us out of the world it should be letting us escape into. Much too much time is frivolously wasted on establishing the reinvention of Tris, collapsing half-heartedly into an unimpressively staged coup that only serves to highlight a way that the powers that be could have much more easily discovered their rogue divergents more easily. For a film that hinges on the regulation of human nature, its alarming how unrealistically its makers actually contend with it.

A passing reference to co-ed bathrooms without respect for privacy is never revisited, whilst not even the threat of impending doom can shake Tris’ will toward abstinence rather than give into the shared desire we’re supposed to believe is so smoldering. If we can contend that life is short now, shouldn’t time and the opportunity of pleasure at least be considered and not squandered?

Divergent plays like a sometimes crafty idea born from the concept of high school aptitude tests, those that tell our youths whether their current skill sets and interests could point to success in certain occupations, like a garbage truck driver or a lawyer, further bolstered by Western fears pertaining to fate and predestination. Except, the concept plays out like a vague nightmare you’d expect to wake from laughing at how your subconscious strings things together without always involving logic (like how this film tends to gloss over how the unlucky ‘factionless’ are any different from those deemed divergent). A possibly compelling idea gets lost in the mire of trying to be appealing to a core audience that doesn’t want to work hard for narrative reward. In essence, the film belongs to dissatisfaction, if you will.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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