Anti-fascist (sort of) and pro-girl (definitely), “Divergent’ – the first in the trilogy-to-be based on the Veronica Roth novels — is meant to position Shailene Woodley as the next in the Jennifer Lawrence/Emma Watson/Lily Collins line of YA-inspired warrior princesses, doing battle against ignorance, demons and/or dystopia. But Woodley plays another kind of anti-super-heroine, one possessed of reluctance and doubt, as well as canniness, cunning and (BTW) great hair. The question is whether her movie has legs.
From the very subdued opening credits, which dissolve into a field of waving grass, one can see that director Neil Burger is going for something different from the competition. Short on FX, long on brutality, “Divergent” boasts an almost indie level of visual grit, subdued CGI, minimal effects for maximum atmosphere and violence that really stings. Although “Divergent” is set in the post-apocalyptic walled city of Chicago, where society has been divided by personality (the smart, the selfless, the honest, the brave…) the story is not about futurism but survival. There’s little rebuilding evident. The characters romp among the ruins. Beyond the wall lies something, or someone, but we don’t know who or what. It’s a static society, except for the continued separation of the its citizenry into dangerously polarized factions. In other words, it’s like Florida.
“Divergent” which will be followed by “Insurgent” and “Allegiant” also feels like a set-up for those movies, with an unconscionable amount of exposition and introduction. This is part of “Divergent’s” major problem: It’s not really a high-concept movie, and is trying to be one, hence its fuzzy impulses and skewed logic.
Reasonably faithful to the book, “Divergent” introduces Beatrice (a.k.a. Tris) Prior on the eve of the big exam: Like every young person in Chicagoland, she will be tested to determine what group will best suit her for the rest of her life. Will it be her family’s group, Abnegation (the selfless)? Dauntless (the brave)? Candor (the honest)? Erudite (the knowledgeable)? Amity (the peaceful)? To the horror of her examiner (Maggie Q), Tris comes up “divergent” – she fits into Dauntless, Abnegation and Erudite. She is warned never to say a word about it, for reasons as yet unknown, and joins Dauntless –to Burger’s relief, we can imagine, since watching Tris sit around being selfless or well-read for the next 90 minutes wouldn’t be particularly exciting.
As it is… it’s not particularly exciting, not because there isn’t action, but because there isn’t an emotional rope to hang onto. There is a good deal of cruelty and violence as the would-be Dauntleteers are shamed, humiliated, beaten and repeatedly tested to see who will actually make the cut. Tris is in danger of flunking out – homelessness and indigence are the fate of the Factionless – but she begins to slowly rise in the esteem of her peers and her trainers, who include hunkmeister Theo James as Four. She positions herself as a leader of Dauntless, just as the group gets co-opted into a coup to turn the city into something even more fascistic than it already is.
Kate Winslet is pure poison as Jeanine Matthews, the leader of Erudite, who takes a liking to Tris, but obviously has some insidious schemes up her braceleted sleeves. The plot thickens, as it will, but what “Divergent” never recognizes – and this may keep audiences from responding to it in an instinctive, visceral way— is the malignancy of the existing system. Our city, Jeanine tells her citizens, is a living thing; the factions are its cells. But this is the kind of philosophy the Judeo-Christian tradition rendered obsolete 2,000 years ago. Sure, it may persist –Vladimir Putin might find a lot to admire in “Divergent’s” politics. But audiences may find weird all the effort and emotion being expended to eliminate threats to a system that’s already cancerous. To grab us and keep us, the dystopic sci-fi action adventure should contain evil that’s distinct and distinctive. There’s a lot of intellectual aerobics going on in this one, but that doesn’t usually win over fans, or make them feverish.