Hollywood's YA obsession continues unabated, and for viewers still famished after two servings of The Hunger Games, here’s Divergent. Neil Burger’s movie follows Games’ blueprint to the letter: female teen lead coming of age in a dystopian future, with revolution and romance in the air. And there’s a hit trilogy of books, by Veronica Roth, to draw from.
Where The Breakfast Club once divided teens into brain/athlete/princess/criminal/basket case, Roth puts the adolescent notion of finding your place into a political context. Set in Chicago, 150 years into the future and a century after a war ravaged the land, a system is now in place to keep the peace, dividing society into five factions: Erudite, Candor, Dauntless, Abnegation and Amity.
While every person is free to choose their faction, 95 per cent remain with the one their parents belong to. “It all works,” sighs our heroine Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley). “Everyone knows where they belong – except for me.” Though ostensibly part of the Abnegation faction that currently runs the government, she takes a test that reveals her as ‘Divergent’ – a rare mix of personality types seen as dangerous.
Beatrice makes a decision that’s bad news for parents (Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd) but good news for stunt junkies, joining Dauntless (“our protectors, our soldiers, our police”), who seem to spend most of their time jumping out of moving trains. And that’s only the beginning: most of act two is Tris (as she renames herself) trying to survive basic training under two unforgiving instructors, Eric (Jai Courtney) and Four (Theo James), or risk being ejected for good.
Burger handles set-pieces with panache, from an exhilarating zip-lining scene to a mind-trip that recalls Hitchcock’s avian classic. But with a plot that’s more set-up than pay-off, the final third never quite gels, as the intellectual Erudites, led by Kate Winslet, plot to claim power.
Woodley is solid, but not able to prevent giggles during a particularly cheesy romantic clinch (“I don’t want to go too fast,” she simpers). What’s really missing are The Hunger Games’ hard edges. Moments that should be emotional aren’t; actors that are usually good (Miles Teller, as Tris’ Dauntless rival) aren’t. But with the world now established, there’s enough promise here to make film two, Insurgent, worth a punt.
Loyal to the novel, but welcoming enough for newbies, Divergent does a decent if not jawdropping job of bringing its dystopian world to life. Should stave off the Hunger pains for a while, anyway…