Neil Burger’s Divergent, based on the novel by Veronica Roth, had a lot of potential to be free, fun, and rebellious. Shailene Woodley is an empathetic and soulful young actress, and she is allowed to perform next to a few wonderful talents like Kate Winslet and her The Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller. She plays a young woman who finds herself living a new life and finding new freedoms and generally displaying the kind of exhilaration that most movies starring young people typically need.
This movie version of Divergent, however, is not something I can really recommend. On its surface, it may play like a harmless teen sci-fi thriller about finding one’s freedom and living one’s natural rebelliousness/specialness in a future dystopia destined to be undermined, but at its heart, it fosters strangely dark fascistic overtones that celebrate violence, military might, and even a certain kind of conformity. This is a sloppy film that offers up too much story and not enough explanation. Its heroes are bullies and fighters, its villains are intellectuals, and its victims are the kind-hearted. Is the lesson here that military cults are better than intellectual double-dealing and weak-willed gentleness? I certainly hope not.
Divergent takes place in a post-war future world wherein a walled-off Chicago has been divided into six factions defined by a singular character trait, and a handy color code to match. What happened in the war is never explained, nor do we ever learn what’s on the other side of the wall, or why the wall was built. We do know that this city requires – for unstated reasons – a violent faction of military-minded youths called Dauntless, who are trained in hand-to-hand combat, weapons usage, and general wartime conditioning. There is no war on, and there doesn’t seem to be a general crime wave. Why this world needs a brainwashed cult of hooting frat boy parkour enthusiasts seems suspect. And while Divergent does brush – ever so gently – against the flaws in this caste system, it always comes down on the side of Dauntless, celebrating their capability for violence.
Other factions are Abnegation, the selfless peacekeepers who run the civil services, Erudite, the snotty intellectuals, Amity, the hippie farming community, and Candor, the legal nitpickers who can never tell a lie. Those who have no faction are essentially left to be homeless, and it’s possible to be kicked out of your faction, never to re-enter. Every youth is expected at some point in their lives to select one of these factions and spend the rest of their lives living up to its standards. They are assisted by a special hallucinogen-based test which will somehow prove which faction they are best suited for. It’s a lot like the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter movies, but trippier and even more nonsensical. Not much is explained in terms of the hallucinations, or how hallucinogens are supposed to reveal your true character. You take the drugs, have a fever dream, and Maggie Q is there to declare the test results when you wake up.
Our heroine is Beatrice, or “Tris” (Shailene Woodley), an Abnegation who takes the test and learns she possesses qualities from several factions, making her Divergent, a super-illegal caste that she must hide from the world. She leaves her family (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) to join Dauntless, and proceeds to undergo military hazing. There she meets Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, and a rainbow coalition of ooh-rah chest-thumpers with a habit of hooting and punching things.
Had Divergent bothered to tell us what the military was for, how the hallucination tests worked, why Divergents were dangerous, or anything that really pertained to the construction of this world other than its arbitrary sci-fi caste system, then perhaps this film may have been interesting, but it seems to stand in a dark place of military celebration, and freedom through violence. The only way Tris can be free is to let herself be consumed by her new physically lithe frat brothers who belittle, browbeat, and often just plain beat their charges into submission. This is a movie where men push young women off bridges, punch them in the face, and threaten them with knives, and are celebrated as teachers. Indeed, Tris ends up becoming romantically involved with one of her hunky instructors (and potentially Divergent), named Four (Theo James) who Is Number Four (Sorry. Couldn’t resist).
The late-film plot, involving mind control drugs and a military coup, is so poorly set up that it almost reads as disposable, especially after such a sketchy setup. At 139 minutes, the final explosion of story and incident feels like extra bloat in a film that is too much explanation and not enough understanding. Instead of Divergent, I recommend another film with Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller: See The Spectacular Now, a more romantic, more realistic movie that examines frailty and uniqueness with a much more sensitive eye. I wonder how Teller and Woodley talked on the set of Divergent. Did they long for the glory days, or did they joke about making fluff for a paycheck? Divergent is just pap.