Divergent

Cast:
Shailene Woodley as Tris
Theo James as Four
Ashley Judd as Natalie
Jai Courtney as Eric
Ray Stevenson as Marcus
Zoë Kravitz as Christina
Miles Teller as Peter
Tony Goldwyn as Andrew
Ansel Elgort as Caleb
Maggie Q as Tori
Mekhi Phifer as Max
Kate Winslet as Jeanine
Ben Lloyd-Hughes as Will
Christian Madsen as Al
Amy Newbold as Molly

Directed by Neil Burger

Summary:
While similar to “The Hunger Games” in a lot of respects, “Divergent” is still entertaining thanks to Shailene Woodley, an interesting world of factions and well-choreographed fight scenes. Fans of the book, as well as those that haven’t read it should be pleased with the film.

Story:
“Divergent” is based on the novel by Veronica Roth.

In the not so distant future, a war has ravaged the earth. The survivors have walled off the remains of Chicago and rebuilt society. The population has been divided by their personalities – Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, Candor, and Abnegation. When a teenager comes of age, they must take a test that recommends which faction they will join, but in the end, they are allowed to choose where they want to go.

Beatrice Prior is a young woman who is about to take the test. Her parents are leaders among the Abnegation faction, but she longs for the carefree and adventurous life of the Dauntless group. She takes the test, yet her results are unusual. It shows she should join Dauntless, Erudite and Abnegation. It turns out that Beatrice is a Divergent – someone who doesn’t fit in the system. Divergents are considered dangerous and risk being put to death. However, Beatrice hides her results and ultimately joins the Dauntless group anyway, much to the shock of her parents.

Quickly taken from her home, Beatrice is initiated by Four, a Dauntless trainer. He puts the new recruits through mental and physical hell in an effort to train them. Beatrice even takes on the new name of Tris as she learns to fight, but as political unrest threatens their society, Tris’ status as a Divergent could put her at greater risk than ever before.

“Divergent” is rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.

What Worked:
I hadn’t read the book “Divergent,” but I wasn’t expecting much from the film. I was expecting a knock off of “The Hunger Games.” I had seen mediocre reviews, complaints about the long running time, mention of a confusing plot, etc. My expectations were pretty low, but I took along my daughter, who is a major fan of the book “Divergent” (but who hates how the series ends). This was the only movie she was anticipating for all of 2014. So I went into this screening with an open mind, yet dreading a 2 1/2-hour running time. At the very least it would be a good father-daughter outing.

As the film started, I found myself engaged by the story. I was intrigued by the world building and the origin story of Tris. I was impressed by the dystopian setting and the sweeping views of a post-war Chicago. As the movie progressed, I thought, “Well, I’m still into this. I wonder how long it has been running.” I looked at my watch and we were over an hour into the film. Time flew by. By the time the film was over, my low expectations were very much exceeded and I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit. I asked my “Divergent” fan daughter what she thought and she said, “It was okay.” Translated from teenager-speak, that was high praise coming from her.

I was right about one thing – it does feel a lot like “The Hunger Games.” You have a dystopian future ruled by a tyrannical government and society broken up into groups. The lead heroine is plucked out of obscurity and must learn how to fight. Along the way she learns to love, but she also learns to kill to protect those she loves. Beat for beat, the two stories are quite similar. Where they diverge (pun intended) is the setup of the world. A big part of “Divergent” is about fitting in. Tris must pick a faction like a kid picks a clique of friends in high school or a college student picks a major. They do their best to fit in or excel in the group they have chosen, but they may have to leave other friends behind and they question if they’ve chosen the right path for their life. It’s a big twist on a rite of passage that everyone has to go through in life. And while Katniss is forced to fight with the skills she already has, Tris must go through lengthy training that threatens to break her before she faces her greatest trial. So yes, they are similar, but there are enough differences to make you forget about it along the way.

“Divergent” sits squarely on the shoulders of Shailene Woodley as Tris and she carries the film well. Her charm and girl-next-door looks make her likable for the audience and more realistic as a character. She also isn’t immediately portrayed as some gifted fighter. In fact, she gets beaten down more than once and barely succeeds when she does manage to win. That makes her an easy character to root for since she’s more of an underdog. She’s well paired with Theo James as Four. I think this film will put him on the radar of many women the way “Twilight” did for Robert Pattinson. James is tough, handsome, and has the mix of bad boy and vulnerability that girls like, and the character of Four also respects the fact that Tris wants to take their relationship slowly. Considering Hollywood would usually have them jumping in bed together immediately after their first kiss, this is a rarity and a good message to send to impressionable young girls in the audience.

The supporting cast is also pretty strong. Ashley Judd is great as Natalie, Tris’ mother with secrets of her own, which throw an interesting twist on the mother-daughter relationship. Jai Courtney makes a great villain as Eric. Zoë Kravitz is memorable as Christina, Tris’ best friend among the Dauntless recruits. Kate Winslet is also fun to see as Jeanine, the emotionless corporate entity who generates the conflict that Tris must face. Considering that Winslet could have played the role of Tris in her younger days, it’s interesting to see her as the villain now as a contrast to the heroine. Maggie Q also has a brief role as Tori, a reluctant confidante to Tris. Rounding out the supporting cast is Miles Teller as Peter. As Shailene Woodley’s co-star in “The Spectacular Now,” it’s a bit surreal to see him go from her love interest to her personal bully, but he still does an excellent job making the audience hate his character Peter.

The fight scenes are well choreographed, making Tris’ fighting style more realistic, so that she has to rely more on speed and targeted strikes rather than brute force. When it’s not guaranteed that she’s going to win, it makes her fighting more interesting.

What Didn’t Work:
If I had to criticize “Divergent” about anything, I think it could have used a little bit more humor. The few times it actually does have a funny line, it adds much needed levity to an otherwise very serious story, and the rest of the film could have used more of that.

While the two hours flew by for me, I still think there were some opportunities to trim down the running time somewhat. Some of the training was redundant and could have been cut and included on the Blu-ray.

Finally, the conflict between the Erudite group and the other factions could have used a bit more explanation. Kate Winslet does spout a lot of exposition towards the end of the film, but it doesn’t sell the conflict as convincingly as it should.

The Bottom Line:
I found “Divergent” about on par with “The Hunger Games,” so if you liked that you should like this. If you have kids that read the books, I think it’s worth tagging along with them to check it out on the big screen. I also think fans of the book will be happy with this big screen adaptation.

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