8 April 2014

Movie Review: Divergent


2014, 138mins, 12
Director: Neil Burger 
Writer (s): Vanessa Taylor, Evan Daugherty, Veronica Roth (novel)
Cast includes: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Miles Teller 
UK Release Date: 6th April 2014

YA (Young adult for the uninitiated) fiction has been a strangely prominent player in the modern cinematic landscape; but to what end? True, the financial results of adapting “The Twilight Saga” and “The Hunger Games” have been immeasurably beneficial for their backers, but a slew of quiet failures have also been simpering in neglected multiplex corners. “Beautiful Creatures”? “The Mortal Instruments”? Or how about this year’s “Vampire Academy”? I’ll bet you’re familiar with Katniss Everdeen, but the likelihood that you devoted time to any of the aforementioned runts is soft. The latest entrant into this oversaturated stable of angst is “Divergent”, taken from Veronica Roth’s 2011 novel of the same name.  Founding its narrative around dystopian tonality and teenage woe (favourite lynchpins of this genre) “Divergent” isn’t much worse than the initial “Hunger Games” outing, although its potential for franchise longevity feels slighter. Whilst that film had the magnificent Jennifer Lawrence, “Divergent” is laboured with a miscast Shailene Woodley, the talented actress unable to connect with the script’s more butt-kickin’ demands. Of course it doesn’t help much that the movie’s thesis on the power of individuality is sandwiched between generic production design and regurgitated character beats. There’s little in “Divergent” you haven’t seen before; even if odd bits and pieces are executed with mild competency.

 In the future Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war, and the surviving population have been divided into five distinct factions. There’s the selfless politicians of Abnigation, the methodical egg-heads of Erudite, the agriculturally fuelled Amity, the maverick police force Dauntless and the unfiltered honesty of Candour. Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) has been raised within the confines of Abnigation, but when the time comes for her to select a faction she opts for the unflinching adventure of Dauntless. Struggling to acclimate to her new surroundings, Beatrice is trained by the mysterious Four (Theo James) and violent Eric (Jai Courtney), the latter taking a vehement dislike to the new recruit. As time passes she grows closer to Four and proves her worth as a soldier, but in the back of Beatrice’s mind is a secret. Beatrice belongs to a breed of humans known as Divergents, rebels who ascribe to no given denomination. With each passing day her superiors grow wary, including sinister Erudite officer Jeanine (Kate Winslet).

“Divergent” reportedly cost $85 million, but unfortunately what’s up on screen looks cut-rate. Neil Burger (last seen directing the enjoyable “Limitless”) opens the picture with a sweeping shot that takes in the entirety of the desolate environment, filled out with solid CGI and a design that effectively communicates the story’s fascination with entrapment. It’s unsettling then to observe the static quality of sets when the tale gets going, large, distractingly empty areas more akin to rehearsal spaces than lavish terrain. There’s a repetitive streak to the look and feel of “Divergent” that robs it of aesthetic joy, its drab sets matching its perfunctory storytelling mechanics with dispiriting measure. The climatic shootouts are particularly unsatisfactory in the way they seemingly recycle imagery and physical space. The post-apocalyptic world of “Divergent” doesn’t feel lived in on the silver screen, but more criminally it only appears half-considered by its creators. There are moments where the Burger who infused “Limitless” with a psychedelic, editorial buzz rears his head; the highlight potentially coming early when a hero is faced with an ominous and eerily extreme jump. Burger’s framing induces welcome vertigo, establishing the enormity of the visual and thematic demands being made of his characters. It’s a simple scene, but one carried off with panache and tension, letting the audience’s imagination do the heavy-lifting. Sadly “Divergent” rarely tasks that faculty again.

Woodley is a superior thespian, but she’s not appropriate for this role. She squeezes some emotion out of Beatrice’s identity qualms, but when left to communicate brutal combat or verbal steel the actress is hopelessly out of sync. Her appearance is weedy and even she evidences zero faith in her ability to land punchy one-liners, leaving us with a hero who feels weak even in presumed sequences of strength. It doesn’t help that love interest Theo James is such a dull presence, although in fairness his broody hunk exists only to elicit swoons and superficial intrigue. The actor is gifted some dramatic motivation on the cusp of the third act, but it feels late, and his relationship with Woodley comes across as forced and sudden. “Divergent” asks viewers to accept the pre-determined fate of these star-crossed lovers, but fails to calculate a discernable aura of heat or attraction during their shared scenes. This romantic arc, which clearly has a big place in the wider universe of “Divergent”, kind of just plops out of nowhere. An idiot could tell that it’s going to happen, but Burger and company give us no reason to believe it should.

Despite a hearty 138 minute runtime “Divergent” actually glides by pretty effortlessly, forcing viewers through some rigorous training before ushering in the notion of corrupt bureaucracy. The shadow of “The Hunger Games” looms large, but “Divergent” at least has the sense to make its villains properly cartoonish, and their thirst for malevolence unabashedly moustache twirling. I’m not suggesting the social critiques that surround its unofficial sibling are complex, but “Divergent” distils the wrong-doing to pure caricature, which is actually good fun. Miles Teller utilises his deft comic-timing as one of Beatrice’s Dauntless rivals, Jai Courtney is unapologetically repugnant and Winslet steps right out of a post-Water Gate comic strip. All three of the performers respond to the base needs of the story vibrantly, using energy as a compensator for innovation. When the feature respects that it’s not hugely highbrow stuff, “Divergent” is pleasantly digestible. Certainly during its extended sequences of merciless inter-faction competition I was rarely bored. There’s pleasure to be derived from the simple intensity of two kids ragging on each other.

That the movie preaches originality is ludicrous, especially given that its opening monologue lays out the world and stakes in painstakingly familiar terms. I’m confident of the direction this fantasy yarn is headed, and its masters would need to be mindful that audiences will eventually tire of “Hunger Games” wannabes. “Divergent” is the movie equivalent of a cheap kebab following a night of heavy drinking. It’s not pleasing to look at, nor does it offer anything fresh or even nutritionally advisable, but in the moment it boasts a certain harmlessness that compliments the undemanding aura of any recreational binge. You will almost certainly regret it afterward though. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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