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Divergent: The Road Not Taken

by Ethan Alter March 20, 2014 3:06 pm
<i>Divergent</i>: The Road Not Taken

Even by the standards of most wanna-be franchise-starters, which focus almost as much on setting up sequels as they do on the movie at hand, Divergent contains an absurd amount of throat-clearing in place of actual story. Imagine the Capitol training sequence that constitutes roughly 30 minutes of The Hunger Games's screentime stretched out to almost two hours -- with about twenty minutes left over for a chaotic battle sequence... and you've got the basic narrative arc of this launching pad for a new YA-adapted blockbuster trilogy that hopes to succeed where so many (The Mortal Instruments and Beautiful Creatures among them) have failed.

Though, unlike those franchise-stoppers, I can at least see of the basic appeal of the Divergent universe in Neil Burger's adaptation of Veronica Roth's 2011 novel, which -- full disclosure -- I haven't read. Like any popular piece of young adult fiction, the story is built around one of the defining aspects of teenage-life: namely figuring out where you fit in (or, more commonly, where you don't fit in) in the social caste system. In the post-apocalyptic future offered up by Divergent, that timeless tradition is still going on, albeit in a more organized form, 100 years from now in the walled-off city of Chicago, where the ruling powers that be have divided the population into five "factions." At the age of 16, every citizen undergoes a test that determines which faction they're best suited for, while still leaving the ultimate choice up to them to maintain the illusion of free will.

The breakdown of these different groups reflects the seating plan of any high school cafeteria: jocks, brains, geeks, rebels, helpers and outcasts. But because this is the future, after all, they have shiny new names -- the jocks, for example, belong to the peacekeeping Dauntless faction; while the brains are part of the Erudite class; the geeks constitute the conflict-avoiding Amity folk, the rebels make up the truth-telling Candor population; the helpers put the needs of the many before the needs of the few (or the one) as part of the Abnegation task force; and the outcasts are ignored and all but spat upon as the nomadic Factionless tribe. But the faction you're born into doesn't necessarily determine the faction you become part of; just as siblings raised in the same home can enter wildly different social classes when they pass through the doors of their high school, so to can the young adults of this far-future Windy City… um, diverge from their childhood trajectory in an attempt to become new, and potentially better, people.

That's the road being taken by our heroine, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), an Abnegation-born worker bee who opts to clamber on board the Dauntless express when the opportunity presents itself, even though it mean leaving her loving parents (Ashely Judd and Tony Goldwyn) behind. Trading the electricity-free, mirror-less tract housing favored by her plain-and-simple clan for the underground dormitory and dojo where her new "family" eats, sleeps and trains, Tris is subjected to a variety of physical and mental tests to prove her readiness to be part of the Dauntless army. Guiding her through the various trials is her handsome, enigmatic Four (Theo James), while the role of the heavy is taken by Eric (Jai Courtney), a more sadistic version of Louis Gossett Jr.'s hard-assed drill instructor from An Officer and a Gentleman. It's especially imperative that Tris master the Dauntless training manual because not only will she be tossed into the Factionless pool if she fails to complete the program, but her big secret -- that she's a "Divergent" a.k.a. somebody who doesn't fit neatly into any cast -- will be exposed and she'll be weeded out (i.e. executed) by the free mind-fearing ruling class represented by icy Erudite blonde, Jeanine (Kate Winslet).

Gee, a non-conformist young person whose outside-the-box thinking will change not only her only life, but also the lives of her friends, family and even the world itself? No wonder the Divergent books have been such a hit amongst their target audience. (Though going by online chatter anyway, the bloom has fallen off the rose by the second and especially the third installment.) Even more than her soul sister Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior is a classic Mary Sue/Marty Stu archetype, a seemingly Plain Jane ordinary gal who is revealed to be prettier, smarter, more talented and, above all, more important than any of the other drones populating her universe. One of Burger's smartest creative decisions then, was to cast J.Law-in-waiting Woodley in the role, who invests this improbable heroine with the same earthiness she brought to her deservedly acclaimed roles in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. Though this doesn't match the ferocious star turn that Lawrence is still delivering in the Hunger Games franchise, Woodley does accomplish one of the more convincing "Wait… I'm a hero?" to "Wait… I'm a hero!" transformations depicted in these origin stories and manages to stay grounded despite the glamorpuss cinematography Burger lavishes on her. (For a girl who grew up in a house devoid of mirrors, Tris's hair care instincts are impeccable.) On the other hand, the supporting cast backing Woodley up manages to be even more forgettable than the slaughtered kids in the first Hunger Games, made up of semi-famous people (like Zoë Kravitz, who is best known for being Lenny Kravitz's daughter, an X-Men: First Class mutant, and Michael Fassbender's ex... in that order), aging actors eager to get out of the house and/or paying their kids' college education and interchangeable background filler who are pretty enough attend mall tours that the star is too busy to commit to, but not memorable enough to pull focus from her onscreen.

Besides picking the right star, Burger distinguishes himself from other failed YA franchise helmers like The Mortal Instruments' Harald Zwart by striving to make this particular post-apocalyptic world distinct from the many other dark futures we've been inundated with recently. His deft visualization of the Choosing Ceremony -- where the various kids publicly pick their factions -- as well as the different environments each faction inhabits reinforces the most potent thematic idea of this particular mythology, namely its supposedly elastic, but actually carefully maintained social class system. But the demands of launching a giant three-movie franchise eventually outstrip his more modest sensibilities, and he gets bogged down in the morass of Tris's endless subterranean training and obligatory, passionless romance with Four. (Notably, it's already been announced that Burger won't be back for either of the sequels.) The inordinate amount of time invested on expository set-up would seem like less of a waste if 1) It were better written and acted and 2) The payoff was part of this movie instead of one or two movies from now.

To be fair, Divergent is clearly operating in the mold established by The Lord of the Rings series, the first contemporary blockbuster trilogy where audiences went in well-aware they were only going to see part of a story. But even though those three movies function best in concert, I'd argue that Peter Jackson builds enough thematic and story payoffs into each individual installment that they still satisfy when viewed alone. (On the other hand, his less graceful Hobbit trilogy, which I'm on record as mostly liking, shows that he's learned some of the wrong lessons from his own example.) Divergent is so busy setting the stage for what's to come, it forgets to show why what's happening now matters, too. Even the big climax -- which involves a city-wide rebellion that pits faction against faction -- doesn't so much come to a stop as it merely takes a time out so that the surviving characters can flee into the next movie. The filmmakers are clearly assuming that audiences will want to follow them, but Divergent doesn't make a convincing case for why they should.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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