“Divergent” Movie Review

     In the late 70s, during the new found fanboy hysteria of “Star Wars”, rival studios set out to take advantage of the massive popularity of the fledgeling science fiction saga and the resulting box office gold it created with their own take on the genre.  One such attempt was the film and television series “Battlestar Galactica”, which featured characters, space battles, and a tone so similar to “Star Wars”, it prompted  George Lucas to unsuccessfully sue Universal for copyright infringement.  When compared to “The Hunger Games”, director Neil Burger’s “Divergent” falls directly into that “Galactica” realm.  The dystopian world depicted could easily take place on the same Earth on another continent as the events in “The Hunger Games”, resulting in a story that has that unfortunate “been there, done that” feeling.  The comparisons are inevitable and to a point I doubt anyone but dedicated followers of Veronica Roth’s young adult novel, of which the film is based, would contend this notion to be untrue.

     It would seem filmmakers and Hollywood in general are obsessed with making movies about where they think we are going.  Rather than address the problems our society faces today, many writers are penning novels that seem to focus on drumming up support from impressionable teenagers on the consequences of war in particular.  These films always have characters who are old and out of touch of with today’s society,  and in particular the assumed needs of those crossing over from youth to adulthood, yet they occupy the positions of power and wield their authority with an iron fist.  Sounds like the mantra of every teen I know.  In “The Hunger Games”, this storyline is much more straight forward.  “Divergent” tells a much more tame version of what is essentially the same story and suffers greatly as a result, lacking the emotional resonance of the former and failing to convey what is actually at stake.

     The city of Chicago is now fenced in and contained, guarded from what appears to be deserted open fields and no apparent threat, though one of the characters tells us the fences are there for a reason.  For the most part, the city looks similar to how it does now, absent vehicles, the people moving with large factions from place to place.  This is all by design.  Society here has people living amongst others who share the same general personality traits.  Rather than today’s world that seems to divide automatically by race, the people in “Divergent” have seemingly regressed to the days of high school or, at best, the format of the current season of “Survivor”. 

     There are five separate factions, beginning with the Erudite, who excel in academics.  They are the smartest people and work in areas where high end technology is developed.  The next group is know as Amity.  They’re a peaceful bunch, content with farming and providing for the other factions.  The Candor faction, by way of the initial behavior of one of the main characters, seems to be the most social of the groups, always one for excessive chatter and overly honest.  Those who choose the Dauntless faction are your athletic, risk taking bunch.  It’s said early on the Dauntless are charged with protecting everyone and their physical nature is matched only by their egos.  The overall leadership of the society is charged with the Abnegation, said to be selfless and having no value in power, they provide for the “faction-less” who are today’s equivalent of a homeless person.  Generally speaking, the thought here is people will remain at peace when they are surrounded by like minded individuals with a common goal.  No one wants a repeat of what brought society to this point and it’s a good bet what ever happened was a result of people simply not getting along.

     “Divergent” follows the path of Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), born into the Abnegation faction and on the cusp of making her choice of which faction she will remain with for the rest of her life.  Prior to deciding, each candidate takes a test that will help them make the best decision.  The test puts the person in a state of unconsciousness and allows the administrator to see a visual on screen view of how the candidate solves a number of scenarios within their mind. How they get through these scenarios basically earmarks them for a certain faction, as it identifies the attributes a person has that would make them a logical fit.  In the case of Beatrice, her test result is inconclusive and the administrator fears she may be “Divergent” or one who doesn’t fit any one faction.

     Though rare, people who are deemed as divergent are said to be the type who are out of control and exhibit free thought, an attribute which is seen as a threat to the faction system.  Beatrice goes into the Choosing Ceremony, having kept her test result a secret, and becomes a part of the Dauntless faction.  From there, the film spends the next 80 or so minutes within the confines of the training one must go through to be initiated into the Dauntless faction.  Because Dauntless have the responsibility of protecting the people, the training is basically another re-creation of a futuristic police or military academy.  They learn hand to hand combat, weapons systems, tactics, and there’s even the requisite hot head instructor who wants to see our heroine fail.  This considerably long act of the film seems clunky and rehashed.  Most of the time you’ll likely recall similar scenes involving Katniss Everdeen and her training.  After all, isn’t it clear the filmmakers intent here is to make Shailene Woodley the next Jennifer Lawrence?  Even the culmination of the Dauntless training involves a “king of the hill” kind of war game scenario similar to the one in last year’s “Ender’s Game” in which one team is tasked with recovering the other’s flag.  It’s as if these young adult stories are being run through the same filter over and over again.

     “Divergent” is by no means a bad film, as the story and craft behind it are solid.  If it suffers in any one place, it’s that it can’t match the one film it obviously intends to emulate.  It can be successful in it’s own right, but it simply can’t measure up when compared.  As in “The Hunger Games”, the plot deals with older people in powerful positions making decisions that effect the younger people in the film.  Here a conspiring Erudite leader played by Kate Winslet looks to overthrow the current Abnegation leader at the expense of the young Dauntless faction, a storyline no different than Donald Sutherland’s “Hunger Games” character and his nefarious reasoning behind his decisions and how it effects the younger cast in that film.  Both, perhaps, look to make a statement about the politics of today and the position the younger generation feels our leaders have left for them in the world they have inherited. 

     The third act doesn’t present a situation the audience is emotionally connected to and therefore does not allow the central characters to succeed in a way that is satisfying.  With the lead up comprised solely of Beatrice’s highs and lows during training, even the love interest the story tries to manufacture with her former instructor for the purpose of future sequels feels forced.  Regardless of how those sequels fare, “Divergent” will always be to “The Hunger Games” what “Battlestar Galactica” was to “Star Wars”, an entertaining companion piece good for passing the time until the next “Hunger Games” film arrives and nothing more. GRADE: C