‘Divergent’: An intriguing time in a grim future Chicago
Much has been made about “Divergent” and the new franchise it is launching, with plenty of comparisons to the “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” films. That is no surprise given their common theme of beautiful young people fighting varying forces of evil and — at least in “The Hunger Games” — engaging audiences in a dark, futuristic world.
While those comparisons are inevitable, Neil Burger’s film based on Northwestern University alum and wunderkind writer Veronica Roth’s best-selling first novel needs to be examined on a somewhat different plane.
Unlike those other two enormously successful franchises, “Divergent” (with two more films coming to cinematically complete Roth’s trilogy) focuses more on subtle, intimate moments. I was impressed by the way the young actors and actresses were able to introduce their characters and their personalities — not only to us but to their fellow players in this intriguing and ultimately unpleasant dystopia.
Screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor artfully condensed Roth’s 400-page novel into a nearly 2½-hour film. That’s a little too long — as is virtually every film I see these days — but the screenplay does a good job at capturing the essence and the substance of the world Roth created. The strength of Burger’s movie is the fact that a non-reader of Roth’s work can enjoy “Divergent” and not be confused by any aspect of the storyline.
Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is on the brink of her Choosing Day, as is her beloved brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort). In this futuristic Chicago, years after a horrific war apparently decimated the rest of the country, Choosing Day marks the moment all 16-year-olds are forced to pick which of the five factions they will join — and live in for the rest of their lives.
Beatrice and Caleb have grown up in the Abnegation faction, the almost Amish-like, selfless, community-service-oriented group that is charged with running the entire community. The other factions are the risk-taking, physically superior and adventurous Dauntless, who provide the policing and quasi-military protection. The Erudite are the thinkers, who are the best-educated. Members of Amity are fun-loving, playful and kind. They’re the farmers as well, joyfully reaping the bounty of the earth on the outskirts of the city. Candor members are the outspoken, unfiltered conveyors of truth, who love to debate. Think lawyers and judges.
Beatrice, who comes to call herself Tris after opting for Dauntless, actually is Divergent, exhibiting traits from multiple factions. Her tester Tori (Maggie Q), who discovers this condition, warns Tris that she must keep it a deep secret. Being Divergent is considered extremely dangerous and threatening to a civilization that has decided people must only be of one mind — lest their human nature threaten this highly controlled society.
We then are taken on quite the journey as Tris fights to make the grade in the Dauntless faction and connects with her mentor, Four, played by British actor Theo James. The marvelous chemistry between these two leads is what makes “Divergent” succeed. There’s an intelligence that comes across and it that makes you both root for the two of them and wonder where this all will lead.
I liked the way Tris is seen struggling mightily as she fights — often quite literally — to prove she’s worthy to be a Dauntless warrior. While that plot development eats up a fair amount of time, it’s necessary to understand the personal journey Tris is going through. That also is true of her budding relationship with Four.
Woodley and James are ably supported by a chillingly nasty Jai Courtney as Eric and a sarcastic and mean Miles Teller as Peter. It’s amusing to see Teller viciously go after Woodley here after the tenderness they exhibited for each other’s characters in last year’s wonderful and warm “The Spectacular Now.”
Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn are solid as Tris’ parents. As the evil Erudite leader, Kate Winslet appears to be mostly walking through her performance — not giving it the kind of slick, villainous veneer you’d expect from that character.
However, overall I was delighted with “Divergent” and am eager to see how the remaining two films continue to take us on Tris’ adventure, as she and Four attempt to learn what’s really going on in their very crazy world.