Somewhere between “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” lies “Divergent,” Neil Burger's adaptation of Veronica Roth's novel, and while I think there are some weird issues with the film, there are enough things it does right that I think it's a pretty safe bet we'll see Roth's entire series play out on film in the next few years.
At what point are we going to stop with the weird non-descriptive “Young Adult” label for these movies? What's wrong with the genre labels that already existed? “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” strike me as similar in many ways, but “young adult” doesn't suggest anything about what you'll actually see in the film. They're science-fiction films with young casts. They create alternate worlds or alternate histories, and they are more than willing to reach for the big metaphor.
Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor are the credited writers on the film, and they had a fairly difficult task in trying to make this world work and feel like an actual place. Roth's novel imagined a post-Apocalyptic world where survivors created a society that has a firmly enforced caste system. By creating five different groups of people, the theory is that peace will be maintained because everything is balanced. Abnegation is for the selfless, a service caste that puts the needs of others before their own. They're the ones charged with running society because they have no ego about their work. Amity are the farmers, putting all their effort into providing for everyone. Candor is known for their brutal and total honesty. Erudite are the intellectual elite. Finally, Dauntless exists to defend all the others, mastering their own fear so that they can be fearless in their work.
There's a choosing ceremony when people turn sixteen, in which each person has to take a test that reveals which faction they should join. They are given a choice, though, and many people stay with their families. That's certainly what the parents of Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) are hoping for. She's been raised in Abnegation, and it is important for them because Abnegation is under attack from the Erudites. There are charges of child abuse and ration theft, and the Erudites seem determined to take charge of society overall. It's a tense situation that is only made worse when Beatrice takes her test and learns that she is something called “Divergent,” someone who cannot be placed in any single category. She is told that she must keep this a secret, and she ends up choosing Dauntless on her Choosing Day, leaving her family behind.
Redubbed Tris, she begins the training to prove herself worthy of being a Dauntless, and here's one of the things that seems to show up in a lot of these YA books: endless training sequences. Maybe it's because school is such an all-consuming part of your life when you're young, but we seem to be spending a lot of time with young characters working on their skills in movies lately. Tris catches the eye of Four (Theo James), an older Dauntless, and he begins to help her as she struggles to keep up with everyone else in her incoming class. In particular, he helps her master the simulations, a sort of drug-induced virtual reality trip into your own fear center that every Dauntless has to master before they will be officially welcomed to Dauntless. Those sequences are surreal, and they make up the majority of Tris's emotional journey in the film as she proves to be almost unnaturally good at beating the test.
It's exhausting just describing the set-up to the movie, and I thought that would be its undoing as a film. Somehow, though, Neil Burger manages to make the world feel actually inhabited, more than just an easy metaphor. It helps that he's got Woodley and James in the leads. She's like a walking empathy battery, wide-open emotionally, easy to read and enormously appealing. Woodley's going to be doing this for the rest of her life, and she seems like someone who can't help but give you something honest and grounded onscreen. Theo James is still a relative newcomer, having only made his first onscreen appearance in 2010, but he's incredibly natural onscreen, and I am fairly sure we're going to see a whole lot of him as Hollywood gets their first great look at him with this movie.
Oddly, one of the few weak links in the cast is Kate Winslet. She never seems committed to the reality of the world, and when things finally reach their dramatic conclusion, Winslet flubs the big scene so badly that I feel like they didn't use the right take. It's strange to see her playing things so arch when everyone else seems to have figured out the naturalistic tone that makes the material work. I thought Jai Courtney was solid playing the thick-necked creep Eric, and seeing Miles Teller be such an aggressive piece of human garbage when dealing with Tris is disconcerting after “The Spectacular Now,” but speaks well to the way both of them slip into different characters. Zoe Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, and Christian Madsen all do good work as the various people who either help or harm Tris as she tries to figure out her place in things. Ashley Judd has a nice brief role as Tris's mother, while Ray Stevenson seems pretty much wasted as the head of Abnegation.
Technically, the film is solid, although I'm not sure the production design really works at creating a landscape that is emotional enough to support the story being told. It's fine, but the film is visually somewhat dull, and it could use some bold choices to help make this stand out. The score by Junkie XL works well, giving the film a sense of urgency even in fairly slight scenes. There are a few striking images, but for the most part, Neil Burger's work as director here seems to be all about the simple touches. He gets out of the way of his cast, allowing them to shine, and he seems well aware that something special is going on between Woodley and James.
The oddest thing about the film is just how much story it packs in. Not only does Tris get an answer about why Divergents are considered dangerous, but she also manages to uncover the plot that the bad guys are hatching and deal with it decisively before the closing credits. It feels like what would happen if they packed everything through the end of “Mockingjay Part 1” into the first “Hunger Games” film. When the plot is revealed, it doesn't seem like a very well-planned affair, which is strange considering who's behind it.
I'm curious to see where the series goes from here. Having not read anything beyond the first half of the book, I'm not sure where things are going, but as long as they've got Shailene Woodley and Theo James starring together, I'll give it a chance. Building a successful franchise is enormously dependent on casting, and that's what this film gets most right. Overall, “Divergent” is familiar fare, but served up by a cast that is fiercely dedicated to the material.
“Divergent” opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.