** (out of 5)
March 21, 2014
Shailene Woodley as TRIS
Theo James as FOUR
Ashley Judd as NATALIE
Jai Courtney as ERIC
Ray Stevenson as MARCUS
Zoë Kravitz as CHRISTINA
Miles Teller as PETER
Tony Goldwyn as ANDREW
Directed by: Neil Burger
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
After the “Harry Potter” movies hit it big at the box office, Hollywood has been chasing the next big young adult novel adaptation. There have been two more series beyond “Harry Potter” that have struck gold and – fortunately for Tinsel Town – overlapped each other so the constant supply of new tween and teen fans were replenished like patrons on a never-ending cruise ship buffet.
However, in the search to find “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” there is a minefield of failed franchises: “Eragon,” “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising,” “Inkheart,” “The Golden Compass,” “City of Ember,” “Percy Jackson,” “The Mortal Instruments,” “Beautiful Creatures,” “The Host” and “Vampire Academy.” Now, Hollywood (and more specifically Summit/Lionsgate) has pinned its future hopes on “Divergent.”
From its pre-production announcement, however, “Divergent” seems to have been mismanaged where “The Hunger Games” was shrewdly developed. Aside from casting up-and-comer Shailene Woodley, casting veteran Oscar-winner Kate Winslet and securing an identical release date, “Divergent” has been plagued by terrible casting decisions and the inability to cut a coherent trailer.
But populating your movie with the likes of Jai Courtney and Mekhi Phifer rather than Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson isn’t the core problem. The core problem is with the story, which makes no goddamn sense in the big picture or in the specific.
The movie takes place 100 years from World War III where Chicago (which is miraculously mostly still standing a century after a devastating war) has been sealed off with a massive wall. Why? I have no goddamn idea. I don’t think anyone else in the film does either. But just go with me. The seclusion and technical inconsistencies of this future is the least of the film’s worries.
Tris (Shailene Woodley) is approaching her 16th birthday, when she is tested to see which faction of society she fits in. Think of it as a Myers-Briggs personality test or Harry Potter sorting hat that slams people into the extreme of a group with little or no middle ground. Fortunately, you have the freedom to choose a different faction from what you test into (which again makes no goddamn sense, considering the society is all about rigidly keeping people into their groups).
Tris tests abnormal, not fitting into any one group. This is bad. This is really bad. She’s known as a Divergent. Why is this bad? Again, I have no goddamn idea. Aside from a very simple and blanket statement that she cannot be controlled into a group (even though the people in this society can choose to be in a different group), the film doesn’t even attempt to answer this question until two hours into it. Even then, the explanation is whisper-thin and so narrow that it only covers one single event rather than a pervasive issue in the society.
I could spend five thousand words explaining why “Divergent” is terrible science fiction from a world-building and high concept stand-point. But I’m not going to because the film itself isn’t worth the effort. Suffice to say, this movie is a painfully dumbed-down version of politics and human nature. It is exactly what you’d expect for a book aimed at 13-year-old kids that has been made into a hopeful franchise targeting the “Twilight” movie crowd.
Aside from world-building and internal logic, there are plenty of other problems with this film. The acting, for the most part, is pretty bad. It’s not “Twilight” terrible, but it’s not going to win any respectable awards. (The MTV Movie Award wins it’s bound to have don’t count, considering the voting block for those.) Even Shailene Woodley, who has impressed many people with her performances in “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now,” goes back to her early delivery we saw in the painful-to-watch “Secret Life of the American Teenager.” Sadly, she seems to be taking a Kristen Stewart acting nosedive rather than a Jennifer Lawrence acting uptick.
Even the character of Tris is weak and flimsy. She’s more Bella than Katniss, and the tired cliche of her being an extraordinary person to lead a revolution even though she’s wholly unremarkable in every way is wearing thin in these films. The reason Katniss is a great hero is because she is just an everyday person who rises to the challenge. She was not foretold. She was not thrust into the spotlight because she happened to be special beyond her own knowledge and experience. Katniss symbolizes perseverance and triumph. Tris symbolizes passivity and recklessness.
The internal logic of the story is either too convenient or nonsensical, leaving an array of unanswered questions that should have been addressed: Where’s the rest of the world? What’s outside the walls? Why are all the lawyers so honest? Why are all the farmers so happy? Why would they allow the sister of a Divergent who was killed test others for Divergent qualities? Why are all the factionless people meth addicts with no ambition? Why do they have factionless people in the first place? Why aren’t any of these factionless people Divergents themselves? Why does no one realize the tests are tests that can’t hurt you? Why is Tris afraid of birds? Why can people sprint like Jesse Owens after being shot but never bleed or wince? Why do people magically appear at the most convenient moment? Why do everyone in this film know Parkour? Why do people always wear robes in the future?
I could go on…
Ultimately, “Divergent” is not “The Hunger Games.” It’s no “Harry Potter.” Heck, it’s not even as targeted at least as the “Twilight” movies. The focus of the story is all about the amazing nature of being different, but sadly there’s nothing unique or innovative about this film at all.