Shailene Woodley is in every scene of Divergent. That, along with bleakly beautiful set design, is the best that can be said about this ambitious futuristic epic, which has good intentions but bogs down in its own self-importance and mediocre writing.
Woodley plays 16-year-old Beatrice “Tris” Prior, a teenager who lives in post-apocalyptic (apparently the only film scripts available nowadays) Chicago, heavily damaged in a massive war that took place 100 years back. She’s about to take a creepy leadership-mandated test to determine which of five virtue-based factions she belongs in.
The results suggest in which faction she’s best suited to spend her life: with the smart people (Erudite), the lawyers and truth-tellers (Candor), peaceful caretakers (Amity), selfless do-gooders (Abnegation) or Dauntless, fearlessly wild and highly physical warriors who protect the city and serve as its military force.
There’s also an off-the-menu group nobody talks about: Divergent. They’re the ones who don’t fit in anywhere because they’re inclined toward independent thought. And they are not rewarded for it. In this society, it doesn’t pay to be able to think outside the box.
Tris’ kindly parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) are members of Abnegation. When her test turns out suspiciously inconclusive, Tris chooses to join Dauntless, where she’ll fit right in. Or so she’s led to believe. “We train soldiers, not rebels,” a Dauntless trainer instructs the new recruits. But guess what Tris really is?
Based on the first book in a trilogy by Veronica Roth, Divergent is grim, violent, complex and loaded with action. Somehow, it still manages to be boring. Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) is apparently so enamored of his subject matter that he indulges in overlong sequences that contribute mightily to the film’s tedious 143-minute running time.
The brutality comes from the members of Dauntless being pitted against one another in a lot of prove-yourself situations to see which of the recruits makes the team (rejects can’t switch to another faction or go back to where they came from, for no apparent reason, and become homeless outcasts). There are no battles with interlopers from beyond the city’s high-rise gates. As comic strip character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The sadistic quality of the sparring and challenges faced by the young Dauntless recruits is difficult to watch as well as to care about, especially since it’s so relentless. Scene after scene of muscular young men smacking around model-skinny teenage girls, while energetically choreographed, eventually wear out one’s capacity for concern. “Dauntless never give up,” intones brutish faction leader Eric (Jai Courtney), but really, enough is enough.
The moody urban settings - often deserted, decaying Chicago warehouses enhanced here and there with a little CG - help justify the price of admission. A crumbling Navy Pier, complete with its deteriorating Ferris wheel blasted by winter winds, feels eerily accurate for a city on the skids. And a zipline jaunt that hurtles Tris across the city from a height of 50 stories is more than a little breathtaking.
But the setting can’t make up for poorly designed characters. Especially grating are two-dimensional Peter (Miles Teller, who starred with Woodley in 2013’s far superior indie The Spectacular Now), Tris’ arch enemy during training, and platinum-haired Kate Winslet, striding around in spike heels and Hillary Clinton attitude as Jeanine, overlord of the Erudite faction, make the story too simplistic.
Woodley, a pleasant if not commanding presence, does what she can with what she’s given. But she can’t improve the awkward dialogue she shares in scenes with hunky, humorless Four (Theo James), an artistically tattooed Dauntless trainer who starts out as her tormenter but ends up on her side in more ways than one.
Poor James, whose utterances are minimal, is so bogged down in making sure he’s seen as Intense Hero Person that he comes across as no person at all. A silent character can be powerful, but there’s always a chance he has nothing to say.
The trend toward cashing in on the current passion for young adult global disaster films will have to run its course until the next big thing. Popular themes aren’t guaranteed a lengthy life span. But in the meantime, at least we’ll all likely learn how to spell “dystopian.”
Divergent 85 Cast: Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Miles Teller, Mekhi Phifer, Tony Goldwyn Director: Neil Burger Rating: PG-13 for intense violence and action Running time: 143 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 03/21/2014
Print Headline: Not another apocalypse?!/Divergent done in by its length, tedious story and characters