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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Divergent Review: Blase YA Distopia

Divergent Review
By: Matt Cummings

The terribly flatlined Divergent offers nothing new and plenty to dislike. 

In an industry dying to find the next big thing, Hollywood has understandably latched on to YA: read by entire demographics who heretofore claimed romantic comedies as their their own, Hollywood correctly recognized its potential. However, its ability to reel those fishes in has been rocky to say the least: for every Hunger Games, there's Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, and Vampire Academy. With such a track record, it's clear that moviegoers haven't embraced the genre the way it's worshiped super hero films as of late. Hoping to reverse that trend is the blase and imitative distopia of Divergent, a film that will make a lot of money only because of its rabid fan base and certainly not because of its pedigree.

After a conflict ends the United States 100 years before, the city of Chicago has endured by erecting a giant electric fence around its inhabitants. There, society has been divided into five factions: Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) and her family represent Abnegation, but the young woman dreams of joining Dauntless, the city's police force. But this caste system is cracking at the seams, led by the brainy Erudites, who challenge Abnegation as Chicago's leaders. Others groups, including the farming Amity and the truth-telling Candor, are content to happily co-exist. Upon her selection day - where she learns which faction she will join - Beatrice learns that she is Divergent, a combination of several factions and therefore a threat to the system's existence. After surprising her parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) by joining Dauntless, Beatrice (now Tris) begins a series of brutal trainings, courtesy of the sadistic leader Eric (Jai Courtney). But on her side is Four (Theo James), a tough but independent leader who learns Tris' secret and helps her to disguise it from the others. As the two become close, they learn of a coup being orchestrated by an Erudite leader (Kate Winslet), who's formed an alliance with Dauntless. As Abnegation is rounded up for execution, Tris and Four must stop their mind-controlled clan from making a terrible mistake, while their parents become caught in a bloody overthrow.

Your reaction to Divergent will probably depend upon whether you've read the books or not: if you have, there's no convincing you of the film's myriad issues. For the vast majority of us who haven't read the series and don't get the rabid following, one cannot help but compare Divergent to Hunger Games, both in plot and tone. Yet another distopian tale of youth caught in the middle of something bigger than any one of them? Ugh. Unfortunately, Limitless Director Neil Burger doesn't get near to that visually-stunning work, merely subsisting on Writers Evan Dougherty and Vanessa Taylor's half-starved fruit tree; but it's also Burger who's to blame for the rather flat effort we're given. He includes scenes we don't need, two important deaths in the film's limp third hour, and leaves out other important character interactions that make several actors look like victims of the editing room. Teller's character will supposedly play a greater role in the sequels, but here he's simply a foul-mouthed bully that Tris somehow physically dismisses after getting walloped by him in a previous fight. Tris' difficult relationship with her parents leads to tragic ends, but such revelations should have been shelved for the sequel. Their fates take too long to develop, while so much time is spent on exposition, leaving us wondering if this 139-minute epic bit off too much.
But Divergent's biggest downfall is its lead: Woodley is just not convincing as Tris, although she plays the role of Abnegation fairly well until it's time to become a badass. Her delivery is too wooden, lacking the emotion and hardness needed for someone who couldn't wait to join Dauntless; it's either that Burger didn't push Woodley enough to display that toughness early on, or that Woodley herself was the wrong choice. The same cannot be said for James, whose quick delivery and strong stage presence should make him a go-to young hero that Hollywood desperately needs these days. He simply overwhelms Woodley - and really everyone else - in every scene. The rest of the cast fall between these two extremes, with many replaceable actors reduced to emotional responses, and an overwhelming feeling that Winslet has been terribly miscast. Her Hillary Clinton-esque look is merely skin deep, reduced to a simple bad guy whose real motives appear to be closer to a kid who's routinely been skipped for kickball.

Divergent is slated to dominate this weekend, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Fraught with superficial characters and poor scene selection, Divergent is terribly generic distopian fare. With two sequels already announced, let's hope they'll have more personality than this one. For now, we can only recommend it as a matinee, and only after you've run out of quality films and your DVR has been emptied.

Divergent is rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality and has a runtime of 139 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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