‘Divergent’ (2014) Movie Review

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Divergent movie review
Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Divergent
Photo: Summit Entertainment

I can understand there is a target audience for Divergent. I also expect Veronica Roth‘s novel from which it’s based isn’t nearly as awful as its theatrical adaptation, but let’s get one thing absolutely straight… Divergent is terrible. There’s really no way of getting around it.

I’m sure Roth’s readers were able to make sense of the world she created on the page. A world in which a human society in a dystopic future has quarantined themselves from the outside world and divided into factions based on their personality types. I’m sure those same readers will find it easier to digest what is on the screen based on their familiarity with the source material. However, I don’t want anyone pretending this movie offers up an explanation for what’s taking place that makes sense in any way, shape or form.

Divergent centers on Beatrice Prior, played by Shailene Woodley whom I would like to say at the outset gives what may be the absolute best performance I’ve ever seen from someone working with such shitty material. Screenwriters Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman as well as the upcoming G.I. Joe 3 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones”) stumble their way through setting up the story and never find their footing, introducing one awful character after the next.

The film opens with Beatrice explaining how this society works as the camera moves in and out of what we’re told is Chicago. Beatrice and her family belong to the Abnegation faction, which means they are selfless, giving and charitable. The Abnegation faction, due to their selfless nature, also run the government. As for the other factions we have Amity, they are farmers; Candor, they are honest and most often lawyers; Dauntless, they are brave, parkour, West Side Story re-enactors (sans the snapping and singing) that love climbing and jumping; and Erudite, they are the smart ones that sit around typing on computers all day and just being all smart and whatnot. Oh, and then there are the factionless, which is this society’s equivalent to homeless people. I know! Ehhhhhhh, amirite?

Given this is the reality of the world the film lives in you’re ready to accept it in an effort to see where it’s all going. However, I found it impossible to understand a society that not only divides its people into factions based on one character trait, but the people within said factions do nothing but live their life according to that trait without exception.

As far as this movie is concerned, the Abnegation faction does nothing, nothing but charitable work; the Amity just farm from dawn to dusk, sleep and do it all over again the next day; the Erudites sit around being smart and bitching about how they aren’t running things and then we soon spend most of our time with the Dauntless faction, which is basically a bunch of knuckleheads punching each other, living in what I can only compare to Zion from The Matrix.

Beatrice becomes our focal point because in this society on your 16th birthday you must choose which faction you will belong to, sort of like the sorting hat in Harry Potter. You can choose the faction you were born to or choose to defect to another faction, but once you’ve made your choice, that’s it! There’s no going back. You can go see your family, but even that’s frowned upon.

Before choosing their faction, each teen is tested to see what faction they are best suited for, which is where Beatrice learns she has no one dominant trait. Yes, feel free to gasp. Beatrice isn’t a robot that wants to only farm, do charity work or climb Ferris wheels. There is more to her, almost like a real human being. The irony of this is that it’s called being Divergent and being Divergent is not good. Why? Because “they” said so and “they” will hunt you down and kill you. Who is they? Good question, we can assume it’s the Erudites, but considering the Abnegation faction makes the rules, the Amity faction upholds the rules and Dauntless serve as protectors, it’s hard to understand just how anyone could get away with killing people just because they have more than one character trait.

Of course, the answer people that have read the book will give you is to say, “Divergents can’t be controlled.” Problem is, I can’t understand who is doing the controlling or why they are allowed to do the controlling. It makes absolutely zero sense and by the time we get around to hour two I was hoping the end would reveal this was a remake of M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Village and all these people were just living in a strange stupid society with dumb rules, because some idiot set it up that way. Unfortunately, we don’t even get that much information as the film closes and we realize this isn’t about telling a story, it’s about twists and surprises yet to come. With any luck the already-planned sequels won’t happen, but this is Hollywood, an industry that thrives on our bad luck as Insurgent is already in the offing.

As I said, Woodley does what she can with the material and Theo James also does a decent job with what he has to work with as Beatrice’s inevitable love interest after she defects from Abnegation and heads to the Dauntless faction. One performance, however, cannot be forgiven, that being Jai Courtney as one of the film’s antagonists, a Dauntless leader named Eric.

Here’s a tip when it comes to creating villains in your stories — they’re one and only character trait can’t be that they are an ass hole. Eric, is an ass hole. Nothing more, nothing less. He shows up, he’s an ass hole and he keeps that going throughout the entire feature to the point you’re dreading his involvement in any future scenes and Courtney proves once again his interpretation of acting is mean-mugging the camera. Though, to be fair, he’s hardly given a chance with such a poorly developed character.

Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) is equally complicit, relying heavily on redundant scenes and shots of Woodley training to fight with a strange, “Whack-a-Mole” attack, not to mention some of the worst action scenes I have ever seen in a major motion picture. There’s a point a character is given the chance to cry over a dead body for a solid minute before the enemy decides enough is enough and it’s time to start shooting again… but only at the wall near her. You know, so she can get away, a cliched narrative technique this film isn’t ashamed of abusing over and over again.

I can see how, as a book, this story might have worked as I imagine the characters weren’t so thinly drawn and given more to do and talk about than what is required of them by the faction they’ve chosen. But that doesn’t mean anything for the movie.

I’m sure Divergent will end up being a success and pop culture will glom onto that success and each new film will be bigger than the last, but if movies of this quality are all we have to offer the young adult, target audience then there is little else we can do but sigh and pretend it never even happened.