“DIVERGENT” (2014) Review

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“DIVERGENT” (2014) Review

Ever since the success of the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise, movies based upon teen fantasy and science-fiction novels have been hitting the movie theaters in the past decade or so. The latest teen Fantasy/Sci-Fi to be released is a dystopian post-apocalyptic tale set in futuristic Chicago.

Based upon the first of Veronica Roth’s literary trilogy, “DIVERGENT” tells the story of a 16 year-old girl named Beatrice “Tris” Prior lives in a society in post-apocalyptic Chicago that is divided into five factions based upon human virtues and personalities. They are Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave) and Abnegation (selfless). Tris has grown up in Abnegation, though she has always been fascinated by Dauntless. Her father, Andrew serves on the ruling council along with the head of Abnegation, Marcus Eaton and the head of Erudite, and Jeannie Matthews, head of Erudite. Along with other 16 year-olds, Tris undergoes a serum-based aptitude test that indicates the faction into which they would best fit and informs their choice at the Choosing Ceremony. When Tris takes the test, her proctor, a Dauntless woman Tori, reveals that she has the attributes of all five factions meaning she is Divergent. Tori records Tris’ result as Abnegation, and warns her to keep the true result secret, since Divergents can think independently and the government considers the latter threats to the social order. In the end, Tris chooses Dauntless at the Choosing Ceremony, and her brother Caleb chooses Erudite, taking their parents by surprise.

Tris leaves her home and meets other initiates, including – her new best friend Christina, her other friends Will and Al, and an enemy named Peter Hayes. After they past a series of initial tests, they engage in a long training session conducted by Tobias “Four” Eaton and the brutal Eric in order to become members of the Dauntless faction, which seemed to serve as some kind of law enforcement organization. Although both Tris and Christina struggle at first, they eventually manage to rise in their class standing. During her training, Tris falls in love with one of her trainers – “Four”. More importantly, both of them stumbles upon a plot by Jeannie Matthews, Erudite and Dauntless for Matthews to become “the” leader of Chicago, which includes ridding the community of those considered to be Divergent.

Hmmm . . . what can I say about “DIVERGENT”? I thought it was a decent movie. Its theme seemed to challenge the idea of society being divided by superficial reasons – in this case, human traits. The movie also benefited from Neil Burger’s direction, who kept the movie’s pace energetic, despite its narrative. More importantly, Burger did a great job in creating some first-rate action and dream sequences. I was especially impressed by the last action sequence that featured Tris and Four’s efforts to prevent Jeannie Matthews from forcing Dauntless members to execute those who are Divergent. More importantly, the dream sequences that reflected her fear simulations took my breath away. And I feel that Alwin H. Küchler’s cinematography and Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing really contributed to those scenes.

“DIVERGENT” also benefited from some excellent and solid acting from its cast. Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd were excellent as Tris’ parents – Andrew and Natalie Prior. Unfortunately, they were not in the film long enough to have any real impact upon most of the film, except in the last 20 minutes or so. The movie also featured solid performances from Ray Stevenson, who portrayed Four’s father Marcus Eaton; Maggie Q as Tori; Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Christian Madsen as Tris’ friends Will and Al; Ansel Elgort as Tris’ brother Caleb; and Mekhi Phifer. Kate Winslet, Zoë Kravitz and Jai Courtney all gave good performances as Erudite leader Jeannie Matthews, Christina and Eric. But I got the feeling that their performances were hampered by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay. Winslet’s subtle performance was undermined by her character’s ham-fisted goals for Chicago – a society in which emotions are eventually eradicated. The screenplay did not give Kravitz much opportunity to display her acting skills (unlike her appearance in 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”), except in a scene in which she found herself dangling over a ledge, thanks to Eric. The screenplay only allowed Courtney, who portrayed Eric, to sneer a lot, nearly reducing him to a one-note villain.

In my opinion, the movie featured three first-rate performances. One came from Miles Teller, who portrayed Tris’ antagonist, Peter Hayes. Unlike Courtney or even Winslet, Teller was given the opportunity to portray a more well-rounded character. And he certainly made the best of it. I also enjoyed Theo James’ performance as Tris’ trainer and love interest, Tobias “Four” Eaton. Granted, his character struck me as a typical leading man in a production that featured a female as the lead character. Think Angel from“BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” or Edward Cullen from the “TWILIGHT”movies. But I also liked how James balanced Four’s growing feelings for Tris and his dread of his abusive father. The star of the movie is, of course, Shailene Woodley. In fact, I believe she gave the best performance as the complex, yet youthful Tris Prior. I am not surprised that she managed to carry this movie on her shoulders with ease. I had seen her in the 2011 film, “THE DESCENDANTS” and knew she had the talent and presence to do the job. Some have been calling her as “the next Jennifer Lawrence”. I disagree. Woodley is not the next anyone. She is her own self. And I would love to see her and Lawrence in a film together, considering how talented both are.

And yet . . . I do not love “DIVERGENT”. I believe it is hampered by too many flaws to make it a personal favorite of mine. One . . . I found the movie’s setting a little . . . questionable. A society that is divided by human virtues? Huh? It is possible that author Veronica Roth had used this division to expose how human beings judge others, based upon superficial reasons. But humans have judged each other for reasons more shallow than personality traits – class, race, gender, religion, nationality, region, etc. I wish that Roth had considered another means to divide her society, especially since selflessness happened to be one trait. And I do not believe that selflessness exists or that human beings are capable of it. And what the hell is up with the younger members of the Dauntless faction running, jumping and leaping all over the damn city? One of the movie’s characters – Christina – viewed these actions as crazy. Perhaps. But it struck me as a stupid and immature way to prove one’s courage. And why would the more adult members of Dauntless allow this? Why would Roth? As much as the screen chemistry of Woodley and James impressed me, I was somewhat taken aback by their on-screen romance. In the novel, Four was an 18 year-old. I read somewhere that his character aged by six years in order for the role to fit James. If so, I think it was a mistake. By allowing Four to be older, his sexual tryst with Tris transformed into an act of statutory rape. It smacked of the Buffy/Angel romance from “BUFFY” and I have always loathed it. Unless sex between an adolescent and a young adult is considered legal in Roth’s literary world. And I was less than impressed by the movie’s narrative structure. At least three-fourths of “DIVERGENT” focused on Tris’ training with the Dauntless faction. By the time the conflict against Jeannie Matthews’ efforts to take over Chicago manifested, the movie had at least 20 to 30 minutes left of running time. And the whole conflict struck me as pretty rushed.

What really bothered me about “DIVERGENT” was its lack of originality. Many have compared it to “THE HUNGER GAMES” saga, created by Suzanne Collins, due to both stories featuring an adolescent girl in a dystopian post-apocalyptic society. But“DIVERGENT” seemed to borrow from other literary/movie/television franchises. Mind you, there is no law that a story like this have to be completely original. One would be surprised at how many novelists and moviemakers borrow from other source materials. But . . . Roth’s efforts to put her own twist seemed to fall short. And the movie’s screenwriters seemed incapable of improving her flaws. It is bad enough that the movie setting and leading character strongly reminded me of “THE HUNGER GAMES”. We have the psuedo-Buffy/Angel romance between Tris and Four. The Choosing Ceremony for Chicago’s adolescents strongly reminded me of the Hogwarts School Sorting Hat (which should have been burned) from the “HARRY POTTER” series. And Jeannie Matthews’ goal of suppressing human emotions makes me wonder if the character was a fan of “STAR TREK” and a Vulcan wannabe.

“DIVERGENT” is not a bad movie. It featured energetic direction from Neil Burger, some decent performances, and especially an outstanding one from lead actress, Shailene Woodley. But it failed to impress me, due to some unoriginal and flawed writing, along with a great lack of originality. Like I said – “DIVERGENT” is not a bad movie. But I find it hard to regard it as a very good movie, let alone a great one.

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