By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Divergent is a science-fiction drama set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Chicago, based on the best-selling trilogy of young adult novels by Veronica Roth.
In the bleak and gritty Chicago envisioned by Roth, people are divided and segregated into five distinct factions, a caste system based on personality and dedication to the cultivation of a particular virtue: they are Erudite (the intelligent), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Candor (the honest).
In this society, all sixteen-year-olds must choose whether to remain in their faction for the rest of their lives or switch to another once and for all, and then devote the rest of their lives to that “family.”
What follows this irreversible decision is a highly competitive initiation process (shades of The Hunger Games) during which participants undergo extreme physical and intense psychological tests.
Shailene Woodley (who impressed in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now) stars as Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who was born into the Abnegation tribe.
But because she shares traits with multiple factions and doesn’t fit squarely into any of the five, she is “divergent.” It’s a full-blown identity crisis, and that forbidden designation must remain a secret because it would mean certain death for her if it became common knowledge.
It falls on Tris to discover that underneath the seeming stability and peacefulness of this society there is a sinister plot being played out.
Forced to choose a faction to join, the uncategorizable Tris picks Dauntless, the fearless faction that protects the city, and she is trained by Tobias “Four” Eaton, played by British actor Theo James.
Kate Winslet plays Jeanine Matthews, the leader of the Erudite faction, who is bent on destroying all Divergents, seen as a dangerous threat, by brainwashing others into murdering them as part of her plan to gain control of the government.
When Erudite stages a coup to overthrow Abnegation’s ranks as enforcers, Tris and Four, obviously drawn toward each other, find themselves fighting in a civil war between factions.
Director Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones), juggling action, romance, and philosophy, spins his wheels a bit as he lays exposition pipe designed to accommodate at least a trio of movies. And by spinning in a few directions at once, he allows his narrative to lose a degree of urgency and momentum.
But the film is resourcefully shot and recovers as a standalone entity with an action-packed climax even as it keeps the audience primed and anticipatory for the next installment, already underway (titled Insurgent, and due in 2015).
Included in Burger’s large supporting cast are Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, and Ray Stevenson.
The largely humorless adapted screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor of Roth’s metaphorical work addresses such universal themes as family and community, and offers thoughtful metaphoric parallels that are especially resonant to teens, such as wanting to belong and making choices for the long haul, freedom versus conformity, and dealing with expectations that one has about one’s future self.
Woodley and James are solid and quietly charismatic in the leads, if a shade less than compelling, but with interactions and reactions that are natural and believable.
The makers of Divergent would, of course, like to see it succeed the popular and successful Twilight and Hunger Games franchises in the pop-culture firmament. And it just might, given that its quality exceeds that of the former and comes close to that of the latter.
So we’ll choose 3 stars out of 4 for the absorbing and visceral Divergent — thoughtful, teen-targeted science fiction about faction friction and defection.