Divergent

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Neil Burger

Starring

Shailene Woodley

Anticipation.

Shailene Woodley’s star has been on the rise.

Enjoyment.

None of the provocative sheen and depth of Neil Burger’s previous, Limitless.

In Retrospect.

The rotten ideological set-up negates any sense of relatable drama.

An exceptional teen girl rises up from the slurry of humanity and goes on to mount a revolution against… you know the drill.

Just as it would be wrong to wish a pox on Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night for spawning what we now term the “romantic comedy” and all its garish, shit-flecked antecedents (like, say, Failure To Launch), it would also be wrong to blame The Hunger Games for the recent glut of carbon-copy teen dystopia movies. Divergent is one such wannabe, a humourless tween dirge whose prime function is to keep time while we feverishly wait for Popinjay Part One (or whatever it’s called) to drop.

Again, humanity has been decimated and fractured by some miscellaneous global tragedy, and the bureaucratic brain trust has deemed that a radical top-down restructuring is what’s needed to keep the flame glowing for the long-haul. Yet, unlike The Hunger Games and its binary, relatable class-based division (elites rule workers), the wacky world of Divergent breaks things down further, offering five sub-sects all with silly names and sillier uniforms which, we’re assured, are able to co-exist in perfect harmony.

These sub-sects are, bizarrely, based on personality, so there’s Abnegation (muslin-clad Haight-Asbury types who live in Corbusier-like concrete boxes and govern the land), Amity (sanctimonious hippy peaceniks who work the fields), Candor (people who tell it like it is, man), Erudite (SS boffins who dress like travel agents and are, naturally, pure evil) and Dauntless (base-jumping gnarly/rad crew who have bad tattoos and head-butt walls cos they’re so freaking wild and crazy. Imagine if Stomp ran all world law enforcement…). And if, woe betide, you don’t happen to conform to one of these broad units, you are instantly cast out to live out your days as a braying hobo.

Off the bat, Divergent falters because the chess-board on which the pieces are moving already has too many squares, too many colours and not enough interesting pieces to make the game at all exciting or intense. Reducing the rich tapestry of the human experience into five super-broad traits just seems doomed, ridiculous and highly cynical — surely someone from Erudite would’ve been able to flag that one up?

Elsewhere, the set-up tries too hard to prize ideas and conflicts into the story, and there’s never a moment where the film convinces you as to why the remnants of the human race would rationally chose to organise themselves in such a fashion. Is it too much to expect a movie like this to have something sophisticated to say about insane political experiments gone awry? Perhaps, but when any and all character motivation is fuelled by context, then the problems mount and the interest wanes as the minutes tick by.

Shailene Woodley takes on the role of Beatrice, the feisty young pretender who switches from Abnegation to Dauntless during her choosing ceremony (something involves dropping things in massive bowls). Upon entering her new life, she decides to shorten her name to Triss, which rhymes with Katniss. But, when undergoing her official test, it transpires that she isn’t just a single-trait automaton, and that she actually fits into the undesirable category of Divergent and must conceal her identity on pain of annihilation.

There’s no point in explaining machinations further, as you know exactly how this one goes down. There’s triumph over adversity, some light empowerment, unfeasible acts of bravery and lots and lots of totalitarian strictures that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Woodley just about holds her own in the lead, but she made for much more pleasant company in more intimate dramas such as The Descendants and The Spectacular Now.

The remainder of the cast are there as angular window-dressing and to spout the (often abysmal) dialogue, the final irony being that, while bemoaning a society which crudely compartmentalises its populous, Divergent itself offers up only dull, one-dimensional character archetypes.

They say that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. With Divergent, YA author Veronica Roth has given director Neil Burger a hundred-weight of expired turnips, so it comes as no surprise that in watching this movie we must contend with supping from a giant crystal punchbowl of acrid turnip juice.

Published 3 Apr 2014

Anticipation.

Shailene Woodley’s star has been on the rise.

Enjoyment.

None of the provocative sheen and depth of Neil Burger’s previous, Limitless.

In Retrospect.

The rotten ideological set-up negates any sense of relatable drama.

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