Director: Neil Burger
Rating: ** (2.5 out of 5)
Novelist Veronica Roth was just 22 years old when she published Divergent, the first of a sci-fi trilogy featuring a young heroine named Beatrice Prior. The author’s timing couldn’t have been better. The young adult genre had just become the “It” thing in Hollywood, and studios were falling over each other to replicate the commercial success of Twilight and The Hunger Games. It didn’t take long for Summit Entertainment to scoop up Roth’s novel and turn it into the next big franchise.
|Divergent by Neil Burger|
Directed by little known Neil Burger, Divergent tells the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl who uses both brains and brawn to take on an evil system. If that makes Beatrice sound like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, that’s because the novel is largely derivative of Suzanne Collins’ work. The plot is flimsy and the mythology shaky. It goes something like this: in the post-apocalyptic future, circa 2114, survivors have been divided into five factions based on skills and personality types – Erudite (the smart), Amity (the peaceful), Dauntless (the brave), Candor (the truthful) and Abnegation (the selfless who live in spartan houses furnished by Muji) – all in an effort to maintain a social balance. Roth must have plugged these words right out of an SAT vocabulary list.
You may wonder: How about people who don’t fit neatly into one of the five pigeon holes? Well, that’s exactly what happens to our young heroine. When Beatrice turns 16, she takes an aptitude test like every other 16-year-old (another allusion to the SAT) and is diagnosed “inconclusive.” Misfits like Beatrice – also known as “Divergents” – are deemed a threat to the social order and must be eliminated. To hide her true identity, Beatrice joins the Dauntless brotherhood as a trainee and goes through a grueling boot camp where she falls in love with handsome instructor Four (played by Theo James).
|Veronica Roth's trilogy|
The movie would have been unwatchable if it weren’t for Shaliene Woodley, best known for her break-out role in The Descendants. Woodley's tremendous talent saves the film but the actress is hamstrung by both the farfetched story and her co-star Theo James. Dull and robotic, the British heartthrob possesses only one facial expression and is much more suited for an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue than the big screen. He appears more interested in posing for the camera than playing his part. There is so little chemistry between Beatrice and Four that the kiss scene elicits a collective cringe from the audience.
The strong supporting cast is worth a mention. Ashley Judd gives a heartfelt performance playing Beatrice’s gritty mother and contributes to the few bright spots in the movie. Kate Winslet is a curious choice for the villain-in-chief Jeanine but she pulls it off with gravitas. The last time audiences saw a female dystopian despot was in Elysium, starring an unbelievably bad and almost speech-impaired Jodi Foster. It is no accident that the baddy Jeanine is the leader of Erudite, as religious conservatives (such as Veronica Roth) often regard intellectualism as a dangerous threat to both their faith and society at large.
If you refrain from thinking, Divergent makes for passable, though entirely formulaic and forgettable, escapist entertainment. Any attempt to analyze the story will leave you confused and offended. The in-your-face message to celebrate individuality and denounce conformity panders to the teenage audience but does little for the average grown-up. But none of that will stop the studio from going forward with the sequels Insurgent and Allegiant. Thankfully, Summit Entertainment recently announced that it will neither hire Neil Burger back nor split the last installment into two full-length movies, a convention started by Harry Potter and followed by Twilight and The Hunger Games. At least there’s some good news.