Poor Divergent. No matter what it did, it would be compared to The Hunger Games.
Perhaps with good reason, seeing as the film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s dystopian Young Adult trilogy was apparently greenlit the minute the credits started rolling on The Jennifer Lawrence Franchise.
However, the similarities pretty much end at ‘dystopian Young Adult trilogy’. And a brave young heroine. And a ‘getting ready for a selection ceremony’ segment featuring close-ups of hair and melisma-powered singing.
To its credit, Divergent aims to be more political, introducing a world in which people are divided into factions that best describe the stereotypes therein; Amity, for the harmless hippies who wear gypsy skirts and hug each other; Abnegation, for the selfless folk who reject vanity and feed the homeless; Erudite, for people who spout facts and sit at computers with sharp suits and tight ponytails; Candor, for people who tell it like it is and, uh… become judges; and Dauntless, who jump off and climb up things incessantly, to DRUMS, and wear leather jackets and have tattoos because they are cool.
Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), however, belongs to that secret, special class known as Divergent – individualists who are hunted down by the Erudite clan on their rise to dictatorship. When Beatrice leaves her native Abnegation for Dauntless and changes her name to Tris, because it’s cooler, and gets tattooed, because it makes you cool, and jumps and climbs incessantly to DRUMS, she finds herself embroiled in political conspiracy and trying to hide who she really is.
…Eventually. Because Divergent takes about 120 minutes of its 140-minute running time to get there. The rest is a dull, routine, and entirely surprise-free plot in which we watch the newly-rechristened Tris face various training obstacles to become a policewoman/soldier and work her way up the leaderboard of the Dauntless charts.
As if that wasn’t boring enough, the flattest of love interests – the laughably-named Four (Theo James) – reveals a bad childhood behind his tough-guy persona. But he has arms that could break an oak, so we, and Tris, are expected to swoon.
It’s easy to see why the dystopian craze is so appealing to ‘young adults’; as a teenager, you think the whole world is against you and everyone’s a sheep and you’re special ‘cause you’re different. Roth capitalised on those feelings in creating her books.
Yet for all its talk of individuality and rebellion, this faithful adaptation remains staunchly clichéd. From the script to the production design, camera work and soundtrack, there’s very little evidence of Divergents in this team.
At several points, the film even reduces the audience to giggles, with romantic moments too cheesy for even the most naïve and hormonal of naïve, hormonal teens.
On the plus side, Shaileen Woodley is both convincing and engaging as Tris, her large eyes and warm looks (think Jennifer Lawrence mixed with a pre-meltdown Lindsay Lohan) making us feel as daunted as she is. She greatly lifts a tedious film.
As do a couple of scenes in which Tris undergoes a futuristic SAT test, and faces her fears in a nightmarish subconscious world. The drama that arises from Tris having to suppress her Divergent tendencies from the examiners is tenser than any set-piece preceding it.
There’s also fun to be had in seeing Kate Winslet as a villain, the frosty Erudite Jeanine – especially as this brings about a moment involving a knife that is genuinely thrilling.
This being the first part of a trilogy and a guaranteed Young Adult success, we can definitely expect more instalments of Tris and Four’s story.
Since Divergent only acquires an interesting plot and something of a personality towards the end, let’s hope its sequels hit the ground running. And jumping, and climbing…
Released in UK cinemas on Friday 4 April 2014.