Here’s the problem with “Divergent.” The book just wasn’t that great. It was popular, sure, but Veronica Roth built her dystopian world on a convoluted caste system that doesn’t make any sense, setting her characters on a course of action that inevitably makes little sense either. Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), our protagonist, is left to rebel against a society that could never have existed in the first place, and her struggle, meant to be strong and heroic, feels more like common sense. Instead of marveling at her intuition, you’re left simply not buying that nobody else can see the absurdity of the whole situation.
Tris lives in a nearly desolate Chicago, 100 years after a nuclear war destroyed everything else on earth. The society that resides inside the high fences of the crumbling city have split themselves into five factions, each filled with members of the city who have one dominant characteristic: the bravest are Dauntless, the peaceful are Amity, the smart are Euridite, the honest are Candor and the selfless – Tris’ faction – are Abnegation. On their 16th birthday, each burgeoning young adult take an aptitude test that basically measures their brain and tells them which characteristic is their strongest and thus which faction they should be in (though the ultimate decision is up to them). How on earth did humanity evolve to the point where people are just naturally only one of five characteristics that aren’t mutually exclusive at all?
The faction system set up in Roth’s world don’t separate the smart from the dumb, the brave from the cowardly, but theorizes that bravery and intelligence, for instance, rarely co-exists within the same person. We know it’s rare because those who are “divergent,” like Tris, show an aptitude for more than one characteristic and are immediately targeted for assassination. To be fair, an explanation for the system is given at the end of the second book in the series, but for now: It makes no sense. It made no sense in the first book, and the film doesn’t do any better of a job of trying to make it make sense.
So, with a basic premise that’ll leave audiences scratching their heads trying to make sense of, director Neil Burger has to overcome that inherent weakness by filling the 2 and a half hour running time with other things to hold your attention. Thankfully, he’s mostly successful at it, staging fun action sequences like an epic capture the flag game and a ziplining scene that takes Woodley’s Tris flying over Chicago’s skyline. It helps that at her Choosing Ceremony, Tris leaves Abnegation to run with the Dauntless crowd, affording plenty of opportunities for danger and action. When the film settles into its more serious elements, though, the weak premise rares its ugly head again, culminating in a climax that’s not quite as satisfactory as one that was earned through logic and sound storytelling would have been.
Woodley and her co-stars are by far the highlight of the film. Burger not only got the characters exactly right, but oftentimes improved upon what was on the page. In the casting of Theo James, in particular, he turned Four from an implausible eighteen year old faction leader into a real leading man with gravitas and the earned experience to guide Tris through her transformation from sheltered “Stiff” to dauntless rebel. The chemistry between the two leads is perfect, and while Tris is younger and more naive, she is Four’s equal in every other way, intellectually and emotionally, thanks in no small part to the confidence and inner strength that just shines right out of Woodley. It’s clear, watching the two of them together, why filmmakers could have found other talented and capable actors who screen tested for the part just fading away when sharing the screen with their leading lady. Her screen presence has been building since “The Descendants,” and really manifests itself here in her first turn at being the lead of a major studio film. She’s more than up to the challenge and will hopefully one day find a vehicle more deserving of her talent.
Burger has really done his best with problematic source material to create a mostly exciting world populated with characters you want to spend more time with, thanks largely to his great cast. Roth’s follow-up, “Insurgent,” improves upon the first book – at least according to this writer – so there’s hope that the film franchise, which definitely seems like it’ll be successful enough to sustain sequels, can grow into the world she creates as well.