Is It Cool?: Excellence in Filmmaking
As an action film packed with special effects and sprinkled with romance, Divergent is diverting enough, but it falls short on a story level as a serious entry into the science fiction genre.
In the post-apocalyptic world of Divergent, Chicago is still standing (or rebuilt) based on the social structure of five “factions.” People are divided into factions based on their most dominant “virtue” and are given a distinct role in society that can never be altered. The motto “faction before blood” defines the city’s rigid structure which is an extreme reaction to the devastation and prospect of war (and also carries a double meaning as faction assignments often split families apart).
Enter Tris (a talented but slightly cold Shailene Woodley), a 16 year-old who is of age to pick a faction with the aid of an aptitude test. Her family is from the “Abnegation” faction — the ruling class based on the virtue of altruism. But she is attracted to the life of the “Dauntless” faction — a home for courageous police officers (who are also parkour enthusiasts). When Tris takes her aptitude test, she discovers that she is an extremely rare “divergent” who essentially has sky-high potential for all five factions.
Divergents are considered a serious threat to the social order and Tris must hide her identity to stay alive while striving to fit in with Dauntless. She receives help from her leader-turned-love-interest named Four (a magnetic Theo James) but gets tangled in a messy power struggle between Abnegation and Dauntless that involves her family’s safety as well.
Unfortunately it is never explained (or more importantly demonstrated) how Divergents are dangerous. There is no apparent precedent for violence or rebellion within their ranks. They are simply feared and murdered. This misstep affects the plausibility of the entire story.
The X-Men films are based on a similar premise of supremely gifted people, but they understand that these special ones can choose to use their powers for good or for evil. And the films are plotted accordingly. If the social factions are divided by “virtues” and someone happens to possesses all these virtues in abundance, how could she be a threat? Wouldn’t Tris’ “virtues” and apparent loyalty to Dauntless make her a valuable member of her society? This leads to the second major flaw of the film in that it misunderstands the true nature of virtue.
The acting on display is very good overall, with additional notable performances from Jai Courtney as the charismatic and intimidating Dauntless veteran Eric, the reliable Ashley Judd as Tris’ mother, and the always excellent Kate Winslett as the major antagonist.
The futuristic world feels believable with good attention to detail and stand-out cinematography and visual effects. A couple action sequences are especially memorable thanks to brilliant execution in a film that works much better in pieces than as a tedious, unfocused whole. Although this is slated as the first of a trilogy, it runs on much too long and it takes well over an hour for the meat of the real drama to begin.
What’s it Saying?: Message of the Movie
The best thing about sci-fi (especially the sub-genre “dystopian sci-fi”) is the convenient opportunity for philosophical exploration and social commentary that often seems too heavy-handed for other genres. The external packaging varies — from action, to romance, to family drama — but the core of sci-fi has always been to take a current social, political, or cultural issue and extend it to its extreme end to test our collective principles as a modern civilization.
Divergent simply does not live up to its potential in this regard.
I could make an educated guess as to what the film might be trying to say, but it doesn’t say anything particularly well. Umm… freedom is good. Being a bad person is bad.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Morality in the Movie
Although it lacks a clear takeaway message of moral or intellectual value, thankfully Divergent doesn’t flaunt immorality or become gratuitous in its action scenes, language, or romance. There is an odd scene where the unisex barracks of Dauntless becomes awkward for undressing recruits (nothing explicit), a passionate kiss, and an unfortunate, but vague suggestion of premarital sex. The most difficult scene to watch occurs in a virtual reality sequence where Tris confronts her worst fears. Four gets sexually aggressive during a brief encounter that suggest he intends rape. Tris fights back and snaps back to reality while spectators applaud her bravery.
Overall, everything feels appropriate to the story and non-offensive for mature teenage viewing.
That's Right. I Said It: Reviewer Comments
Because of the dystopian future and young female lead, it’s hard not to compare this to the first Hunger Games (which is a better film in nearly every regard).
The CG future Chicago cityscape looks incredible.
The budget for visual effects seems to have been applied unevenly.
Why would Tris’ aptitude test administrator tell her the results? Major character motivation error.
I really like Jai Courtney in this role.
Extreme parkour is portrayed as courageous, not reckless.
Some of these fantastic action sequences deserve a home in a better movie.
Why is Tris’ ability to distinguish reality from virtual reality such an amazing feat? She is never really believable as an extraordinary character.
How the heck could Tris sneak into Dauntless headquarters unnoticed?
In such an apparently peaceful (if repressed) society, why are the Erudite and Abnegation factions struggling for power? Their motivations are unclear.
I wonder if Veronica Roth’s original book has a more coherent story.