Dodgy foundations, but Shailene’s a great faction hero

For everything that’s wrong with Divergent, a confidently executed but fundamentally flawed pretender to The Hunger Games’ young adult throne, there is one scene it gets dizzyingly right. Tris (Shailene Woodley), a formerly meek, newly strong-willed teenager learning to rebel against her restrictive society, is forced to confront a series of her worst fears made flesh. More than drowning or dying, her deepest fear is that the boy she likes, Four (Theo James), will try to have sex with her. It’s a rare moment of emotional nuance, so beautifully attuned to the anxieties of teenage girls it makes everything surrounding it all the more frustrating.

Set in a hollowed-out husk of a city that was once Chicago, Divergent centres on an apparently utopian society in which citizens are divided into five factions, each based on a different human virtue – honesty, selflessness, intelligence, kindness and bravery. Now 16, Tris must decide whether to stay in Abnegation, her nice-but-dull birth faction, or defect to Dauntless, the tough-as-nails clique whose members wear a lot of leather and leap recklessly onto moving trains.

It’s never a good sign when a film feels the need to continually explain its premise, and the biggest stumbling block Divergent has is shaky source material. The world of Veronica Roth’s novels just doesn’t resonate. You don’t buy it. No society would choose to function in this way, not even a secretly evil dystopian government headed by Kate Winslet’s corporate Jeanine Matthews.

When Tris learns that she is ‘divergent’, meaning she fits partially into several factions, it comes as a shock. But since human beings haven’t fundamentally changed in this 30-yearson future, it stands to reason that 99 per cent of all people would be divergent, making the system useless. A would-be turning point comes later when a character declares: “I want to be brave and selfless and smart and kind and honest,” summing up Divergent’s well-intentioned but painfully trite message about individuality.

Still, Woodley is a compelling and thoughtful central presence, imbuing Tris with something like inner life and delivering one or two emotional thunderclaps in the third act. Her romance with mysterious Dauntless instructor Four (Theo James) is a cut above the YA fantasy average and there’s real bite to their spiky, adversarial dynamic. But with its ill-conceived premise and thinly drawn history, Divergent rarely feels more than surface deep. So much is left unexplained about the society, the war that caused it, what’s beyond the city wall, that it feels more like a set-up for sequels than a story in its own right.

DVD extras include two thorough but ponderous chat tracks, and a half-hearted featurette; available in both one and two-disc packages, Blu-ray offers a 45-min Making Of and a spread of featurettes, including a look at the unremarkable costumes.

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