First it was the round of Harry Potter clones, then the Twilight knock-offs and the next round belongs to the Hunger Games replicas. While there would be more to follow in the coming months (The Giver, Maze Runner), we have currently Divergent as the first of the lot out of the door. Ticking off all the necessities of this dystopian future sub-genre of the young-adult niche, Divergent is an uneven product but surprisingly contains quite a few elements that make it work despite a laughably poor climax.
Chicago of the future is surrounded by a high-wall dividing it from the rest of the world and what monstrosities may lie in the war ravaged lands beyond. It’s divided between five factions; Erudite (the intelligent), Dauntless (the brave), Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), and Candor (the honest), integral to the running of the city. Each year a new set of recruits is inducted into the factions via a test determined to gauge compatibility with the right faction (something of an aptitude test). Those who perform differently on test i.e. fit into multiple factions or neither, are known as Divergents. Divergents are regarded as persona non-grata in this society since they are considered ‘free-thinkers’ and cannot fit into one ideology thus cannot be controlled easily.
Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), despite her parents being prominent faces of the Abnegation leadership, chooses Dauntless during her initiation ceremony. Aside from her childhood fascination for the Dauntless, her test results also showed her having an affinity for Erudite, Dauntless, and Abnegation thus proving she’s a Divergent. Having to leave behind her family and brother for the arduous training with the Dauntless, she soon realises she’s way over her head with the roughneck lifestyle of these soldiers. She picks herself up with the help of a few friends like Four (Theo James) and Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and makes a few foes like Peter (Miles Teller) and Eric (Jai Courtney). However beyond her personal struggle, there’s a larger conspiracy brewing within the factions led by the Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), who’s grand design involves genocide and hunting down every last Divergent.
The movie’s dystopian setting is minimalistic yet visually striking, there’s no emphasis on grandiosity but rather presenting practicality within the ruins of a once successful state. Beyond some amount of exposition early one, little is really explained of the circumstances of the war that caused this societal change. This causes a major disconnect later on in the plot when the whole larger conspiracy between the factions part kicks in painting whole factions in shades of black and white rather than a more compelling grey.
However the part of the tale that really works is when it focuses on Tris’s personal journey and it works largely due to Woodley’s lively performance. She’s able to infuse into her portrayal, nativity, a quiet determination, vulnerability and sense of amazement without aping Jennifer Lawrence’s turn as Katniss. This in my opinion is a real victory, which despite a poor turn of events in the second half, makes her an endearing protagonist. Unlike Katniss, this is the life she wants and chooses, but like Katniss, she gets more than she bargained for.
The rest of cast varies from ‘meh’ to wasted. Zoe Karvitz is the only one with some spark (interestingly her father Lenny, plays an ally of Katniss in the Hunger Games). Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd in particular get the short end of the stick when it comes to characterisations, though adequate in their performances. Theo James is eye-candy for the girls and Jai Courtney is eye-candy for the Goth crowd.
Special mention must go to the soundtrack, which is easy on the ears and compliments the onscreen action pretty well. However the pacing is wildly uneven, and can be quite jarring in places.
‘Divergent’ has a strong central performance from Woodley and works quite well for more than half of its running length when it focuses on her training. However once it jumps to the larger conspiracy part of things, all goes down quicker than you can say Titanic.