Earlier this week I voiced some general confusion as to what Divergent was actually about, but little did I know that this promotional obfuscation was meant to hide a shockingly derivative combination of The Hunger Games' dystopia and Harry Potter's school-life allegory, with the only addition being thimble-deep characterization and a basic conceit so absurd that the film never is able to recover from it. The end result makes Divergent feel far less like an inevitable movie sensation and more like yet another product manufactured on a “tween franchise” conveyor belt, intended to hit quadrants in lieu of telling a compelling story.
In the future ruins of Chicago, our society has splintered off into five separate factions, all of which are exemplified by one base character trait: there's the knowledge-seeking Erudite (led by the absolutely wasted Kate Winslet), the hippie farmers of Amity, the X-Games-sponsored-by-Mountain-Dew-Code-Red goofballs that comprise the brave Dauntless, the selfless helpers of Abnegation (where our heroine comes from!) and Hufflepuff. Nevermind the fact that the most terrible human being is capable of this entire range of emotions on even their worst day, because if we acknowledged the impossibility of this premise there would be no chance for our protagonist (Shailene Woodley's Tris) to discover that she is capable of all of these things and more, which makes her divergent and a challenge to the status quo that those in power must immediately snuff out. At multiple points throughout the film we see characters from each faction clearly demonstrate traits belonging to other factions, only further convoluting the premise. There's very little more to the story than that, as we spend the first act following Tris' initial test that determines where she actually belongs and the subsequent act watching her undergo further tests (wherein she meets her hunky counterpart in Four, played by Theo James) once she's decided to join the Vin-Diesel-in-XXX-style-shenanigans of Dauntless. That's right – this is the rare film that accurately captures the drama and excitement inherent in taking your ACTs.
The one right move made here is putting Shailene Woodley front and center throughout – there's a honesty to her work that's always appealing, although I wish her talents were being utilized in the service of something far more substantial than her attempts at wringing pathos from the wooden material she's given here. (It should be said that her chemistry with Theo James is fine, although the age gap between them is palpable.) Then again, I could be wrong – the audience I saw Divergent with was largely comprised of fans of the source material, and they were tittering with every chastened touch shared between our leads and cheering for every emotional beat no matter how ham-fisted. There are suggestions that elements of the story could become more interesting over the course of the series - the Four character's having to confront his abusive childhood is the rare bit of development that escapes the paper-thin beginning of The Breakfast Club characterization afforded the rest of the cast – but if every other stop on the journey towards the inevitable The Divergent Saga: Allegiant Part Two proves as leaden and silly as this entry I'll have checked out long before then.