[Screen It]

"DIVERGENT"
(2014) (Shailene Woodley, Theo James) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Action: A teenager of the distant future must contend with the danger she poses to the status quo when she doesn't fit into any of the five predetermined personality and behavior-based factions into which the populace has been divided.
PLOT:
In the distant future, war has ravaged most of the planet and what's left of Chicago has been turned into a walled-in fortress. In order to maintain the peace and keep everyone in line, the populace has been divided into six factions. There's Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave protectors), Erudite (the Intelligent), and Factionless (those who don't fit into the previous five and are essentially homeless scavengers).

Every year, teenagers of a certain age must undergo tests that will determine into which faction they'll best fit into, although at the actual choosing ceremony they can choose their own. After that, however, there's no switching or going back to the faction you were born into. Unlike her brother Caleb (ANSEL ELGORT) who lives at home with her and their parents, Andrew (TONY GOLDWYN) and Natalie (ASHLEY JUDD), Beatrice Prior (SHAILENE WOODLEY), doesn't seem to fit squarely into any of them. Her testing confirms that, but the woman administering the test warns her not to let anyone know.

And that's because so-called divergents are seen as a threat to the status quo and particularly Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (KATE WINSLET) who wants to weed them out to maintain order. She and her kind might also be gunning for rule of the city now held by Abnegation and its leader, Marcus Eaton (RAY STEVENSON).

Despite his parents also belonging to Marcus' faction, Caleb selects Erudite for his future, while Beatrice chooses Dauntless. She's immediately thrust into vigorous physical and mental training -- along with fellow inductees Christina (ZOE KRAVITZ), Peter (MILES TELLER), Will (BEN LLOYD-HUGHES) and Al (CHRISTIAN MADSEN) among many others -- at the hands of the stern and hardcore Dauntless leader, Eric (JAI COURTNEY), who wants to weed out the weak.

His chief instructor and former classmate rival is Tobias "Four" Eaton (THEO JAMES) who puts the initiates through their paces, but has a soft spot for Beatrice who's now adopted the nickname of Tris. As their training continues, Tris increasingly becomes aware that something is not right with the powers that be, all while being warned not to let anyone know of her own divergent status.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I find it surprising and sometimes even troubling that many of today's kids have no idea what they want to do or be when they enter the workforce. I'm not referring to younger children who are usually all over the vocational map, but rather high school and especially college students who appear to be clueless and perhaps even aimless.

Maybe I was an aberration knowing what I wanted to do by the third grade, and while I might not currently be making movies, at least I'm writing about them (and occasionally get to hobnob with the biggest figures in the industry). I know many kids nowadays, however, who have no idea what they're going to pursue.

At least they're not growing up in a certain European country where testing in the fourth grade pretty much dictates your educational and career path from that point forward. Some end up headed toward a vocational future while others are prepped for a university level one. We have friends in this country whose son was pegged to be a future football (soccer) star and thus was put on that track. As any parent knows, a lot can happen to kids from both a mental and physical standpoint between the age of 10 and 18 and to pigeonhole kids based on early testing seems downright irresponsible if not outright wrong.

That said, knowledge of such a system meant that I didn't find the main plot thrust of the movie "Divergent" that shocking. Based on Veronica Roth's 2011 novel of the same name, it tells the tale of a future, post-apocalyptic society (in Chicago, of all places -- didn't they know about the winters there?) where people are purposefully segmented into different factions to maintain peace and order.

That includes older teenagers who must take a test that reports into which they'd best fit, although -- oddly enough for such a regimented structure -- they're given free will and allowed to bypass that and choose the one of their own liking. The caveat, though, is that once they pick they're stuck there forever, with the only option being ending up factionless, a.k.a. being homeless.

Those who don't seem particularly suited for being a provider, giver, protector, intellect or honest person are labeled as being a divergent (hence the title) and viewed as a threat to the status quo. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley in her most major role since starring at George Clooney's troubled teen daughter in "The Descendants") is one such person who must keep that secret from all lest she be persecuted for not fitting in.

She does so while joining the police-meet-parkour style Dauntless faction where she goes through training and thus learns the ropes of what's expected of her. With that as the setup, the story clearly feels like yet another variant of the "Harry Potter" or "Hunger Games" stories featuring young people in somewhat similar circumstances where friendships and adversarial relationships pop up while also dealing with the good and bad instructors.

I haven't read the original book (or subsequent follow-ups) so can't say if the same problem exists in that form, but the issue here is that once the premise is established, the plot pretty much stalls. Sure, there's forward movement as the training continues, our heroine's skill sets improve, a romance blossoms (with Theo James playing her hunky instructor) and a nefarious plan (involving leader characters played by Jai Courtney and Kate Winslet) is uncovered. But despite various training montages, some gun battles and such, so much of what director Neil Burger offers feels listless and like a bit of a letdown considering the overall scenario.

I certainly feel that the scribes -- Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor -- missed somewhat of a golden opportunity in not taking full advantage of a story development that's introduced early in the film and then explored a bit later. And that's when a serum is administered to "Tris" that allows the visualization of her interacting with her hallucinatory fears.

While there's a brief moment of continuing with one after we believe it's ended, as a storyteller I would have taken that concept and really run with it. The result would have not only involved keeping the protagonist on her toes regarding what's real or not, but also the viewer in not knowing what to believe was real or not. Danny Boyle's "Trance" did that masterfully early last year, while the likes of the original "Total Recall" and other films have similarly played with that concept, and I think this film certainly could have used a great deal more of such mental trickery to its benefit.

Without that, what transpires is fairly bland. Woodley gives it her all (even if this obviously feels like an artistic step back from "Descendants"), but can't pump a great deal of viewer interest into her plight (due to the script). Meanwhile, the budding romance with James' character -- although decently portrayed -- feels recycled and lukewarm at best (older tween and younger teen girls might react differently than this 50-year-old male reviewer, and swoon over all of it).

And with this so obviously being an introductory chapter to what's obviously designed as a series of running installments (at minimum a trilogy), it doesn't feel like a complete flick with a full moment of closure at the end. Throw in a far too long running time of nearly 140 minutes and "Divergent" comes off like yet another less than successful adaptation of a "young adult" piece of literary fiction. It rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed March 18, 2014 / Posted March 21, 2014


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