Weirdly enough, I am not the target audience for most young adult fiction. As it turns out, bitter late 30s Internet denizens are not the demographic that books like Veronica Roth’s Divergent, nor Neil Burger’s subsequent movie adaptation, are aimed at. That much is expected, as are the melodramatic romance and angst-filled teenage rebellion, and depending on your tolerance level for such things, they might not even be total deal breakers. If nothing else, Divergent is still light years more tolerable than any of the Twilight movies.
Where Divergent fails in spectacular fashion is in the world building. Set in a dystopian future Chicago, 100 years after a vague war that is only mentioned offhand, the world is simplified to the point of idiocy. You watch the movie with slack-jawed awe, thinking there must be more than this, there must be something else going on, but there’s not. The political system that rules the city, as well as the dissent that you know from word one is going to bubble up, is so asinine and minimal that you have to wonder how anyone thought this was enough to build a story on.
The city has been walled off for a century, and no one has apparently even thought to wonder what might be outside. There’s a wall and places that “never recovered from the war,” and that’s that. Inside, society has been broken up into five factions, based on your dominant personality trait. These include Abnegation, the doormats; Amity, the happy farmers; Candor, the tactlessly honest; Erudite, the sinister, conniving smart people; and Dauntless, the brave. Dauntless is supposed to be cool and courageous, but they’re just a Mountain Dew commercial come to life. They run everywhere, hooting and hollering, they have neck tattoos, and wear all black. Do they wait for the train to stop, like pussies? Oh no, they jump on just like they jump off. Their main hangout is an extreme sports club, full of rock climbing walls and MMA rings. I’m surprised there’s not more chest bumping.
This division is so maddening and stupid that it’s hard to get past, and you spend most of Divergent asking yourself what jackass possibly thought a way of life that forces people to be one single thing their entire lives was a good idea. Of course, people are so much more than just one part of their personality. Holy shit, you can be brave, and nice, and smart? Well that’s just crazy talk.
And this is the foundation that the entire story is built upon, and it is so flimsy and insubstantial that everything suffers as a result. Burger has actually assembled a solid cast, that, for the most part, do what is asked of them, but there is so little substance that their best isn’t much.
The plot follows Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) as she takes a test that determines what faction she fits with, and where she should spend the rest of her life. Again, this is a simple world, and once you choose, you can never change your mind, because no one has ever changed their mind before, or regretted a decision they made when they were 16. This is essentially the sorting ceremony from Harry Potter. But here’s the problem, Tris is equally apt in multiple areas, again, whoa. This is apparently very, very rare somehow, and makes her what they call divergent. Because this world is so laughably dumbed down, one person with a well-rounded personality throws their entire way of life into chaos. That seems like a sound basis for government.
The thematic through line of Divergent is Tris trying to figure what makes her different and what makes her such a threat to the powers that be, personified by Jeanine (Kate Winslet), an evil Erudite out to snatch as much power as she can. Her whole argument is that Tris is different, thus threatens their way of life, and that’s all you get for an explanation.
This pops up from time to time, but most of the first two thirds of the movie is taken up with Tris trying to fit in with her new friends in Dauntless. The action is essentially every high school movie you’ve ever seen, where the awkward new kid struggles to find her place. She makes a couple friends, including Lenny Kravitz’s daughter, and falls in love with her hunky instructor Four (Theo James). He just gets her like no one else ever has, you know. You’d think even in the future there’d be some rules about students dating teachers, no matter how dreamy he is. I know he’s not that old—there are apparently also no people older than their mid-40s in Divergent-land, which gives the whole place a Logan’s Run feel—but she’s still 16.
Even with the overly melodramatic romance, Woodley and James do what they can to save the day, but the script doesn’t give them much material to work with. They’re also the only characters with anything substantial going on. Sure, Tris’ big watery eyes are on the verge of tears for most of the movie, but the story rains shit on her from the get go, so you understand that. Four is an archetype tough guy, a strong silent type, but James has enough charm to make him at least likable, and he even winds up being the funniest part of the movie.
Everyone else, however, is totally wasted, and not the fun kind. You expect Jeanine to tent her fingers manically at any moment because she’s so one-dimensional. Ashley Judd as Tris’ mother has a moment that gives her something to work with, but Tony Goldwyn as her father just looks confused when he’s on screen. Mekhi Phifer has a handful of lines and walks around looking stern. If you looked at the promotion leading up to Divergent, you’d think Miles Teller plays a sizable role, but they only let him speak half a dozen times, and every word out of his mouth is just to prove he’s a dick. And Jai Courtney doesn’t do much to inspire confidence that he was the right choice to play Kyle Reese in Terminator: Genesis. He’s Eric, one of the Dauntless leaders, who, like everyone else, is flat and boring. You get it from the moment you first see him, he’s an asshole, and there’s nothing else going on beyond that.
By the time you get to the final act of Divergent the pace picks up and it’s possible to settle back into the action and let it slip over you, but it’s far too little, far too late. Bland, clunky, and lifeless, Divergent is built on a flawed premise, with nothing below the surface. Burger and company do their best to invoke The Hunger Games, even falling back on the handheld camera work of the first film in that franchise, and though Divergent may result in a decent payday, this is yet another misfire by studios looking to cash in on the popularity of dystopian teen sci-fi.