Dystopia is all the rage these days, especially in the realm of young adult novels (and cinematic adaptations of those novels). It's an unusual trend, I suppose, but it makes a certain amount of sense when you think about it. Tales set in these horrifying worlds often divide characters into neatly-organized groups and then proceed to throw those groups into mortal combat with each other. Quite frequently, these stories feel like allegorical variations on the high school experience. “It's not the end of the world,” many parents tell their troubled children during times of crisis. The thing is, when you're a teenager, it feels exactly like the end of the world.
The Hunger Games has certainly been the most popular of these, and deservedly so – despite a clunky closing installment, the film series takes its characters and its world seriously, and created a universe which feels uncomfortably plausible despite its more outlandish elements. Divergent is clearly an attempt to capitalize on the success of that series, and during its best moments it almost resembles a passable imitation. Unfortunately, most of the time it's abundantly clear that Divergent doesn't have a great deal of faith in its audience, nervously pandering to its target demographic every time it starts to get interesting. Even worse, the bleak future the film delivers never feels remotely convincing.
Divergent gives us a world in which the bulk of humanity is evenly divided into five groups: Dauntless (jocks), Erudite (smart people), Amity (hippies), Abnegation (selfless do-gooders) and Candor (honest folks). The unlucky people who don't belong to any of these groups are dubbed “the factionless.” They appear to be homeless and walk around looking miserable, and that's all the movie really has to say about them. Once every young person reaches a certain age, they're required to take a test which tells them which group they're best-suited for. They can choose any group they wish, but it's generally recommended that people follow whatever suggestion the test provides. When our protagonist (an exceptional Shailene Woodley, The Descendents) takes her test, she receives a terrifying result: she would fit comfortably into Dauntless... or Erudite, or Abnegation. She's capable of being more than one thing, aka “divergent” (hence the title, which is repeated later on when Woodley punches a villain in the face while shouting, “I'm DIVERGENT!”).
Though the first act of the film spends a good deal of time filling us in on the details of how this particular cinematic universe works, there's never any sort of persuasive explanation of why someone thought it would be a good idea to divide the world into such groups or why it makes the world so much more efficient. I would never accuse Divergent of being an art film, but it does something many art films are often guilty of: creating a world which works on a symbolic level but not on a more basic surface level. It's easy to see why young viewers would latch on to a story in which the most remarkable (and most feared) people in the world are those who simply defy easy stereotypes, but really, c'mon.
This problem might have been possible to overlook if the film had excelled in other areas, but it falls prey to cheap conventions at every turn. The movie talks down to its viewers in a variety of ways – by underscoring too many scenes with disposable pop songs, by refusing to permit any subtlety whatsoever in the dialogue, by concluding the film with a bland shootout (seemingly the contractually obligated climax of any film which costs a certain amount of money) and by including a groan-inducing (or hoot-inducing, if the audience I was with is any indication) dramatic scene which is centered on the premise of the male love interest (Theo James) removing his shirt. Plus, it's entirely too long, giving us roughly ninety minutes or so of training scenes when half that amount would have sufficed. Ah, and then there's the film's most unforgivable crime: it completely wastes the phenomenally talented Kate Winslet (unquestionably one of the finest actresses of her generation) by asking her to play an underwritten, one-dimensional villain.
Anyway, despite the belated complaints of a little-read person on the internet who isn't really included in the film's target audience, the film managed to make a great deal of money at the box office and successfully launch yet another franchise. Still, it's a little ironic that a film so devoted to emphasizing the importance of being unique feels so recycled.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 139 minutes
Release Year: 2014