With the Twilight series and the first two instalments of The Hunger Games setting box office records over the past half-decade, Hollywood has been scrambling to find the next big Young Adult franchise to cash in on. It’s a simple concept: best-selling novels, pre-established fan base, elements of fantasy/sci-fi/teen romance. These things should transition well to the big screen (or at least make some quick cash).
Unfortunately, in 2013 the Young Adult concept produced three of the worst films of the year: the excruciatingly dull Southern Gothic of Beautiful Creatures, a laughable alien parasite love story in The Host, and the utter mess that was The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. All three films failed critically and commercially, failing to garner enough interest to rate respective sequels (Vampire Academy, released earlier this year, suffered the same fate.)
The latest attempt to cash in is Divergent, an adaptation of the popular trilogy of novels by Veronica Roth, which (seemingly) owe a particular debt to The Hunger Games. Armed with a bigger budget and (slightly) higher pedigree than the aforementioned, it contains all of the familiar tropes but wraps them inside a mildly compelling package: this isn’t The Hunger Games, but considering what else has come and gone, it’s close enough.
That is, at least, until it self-destructs in the final act.
Divergent is set in a post-apocalyptic future Chicago – walled off from the rest of the country, which seems to have been decimated – where citizens are divided into five distinctive factions based on their personality type: Abnegation (charity workers), Amity (mediators), Candor (lawyers), Dauntless (military), and Erudite (scientists).
This seems to leave out a good deal of the population – indeed, unclassified (or “factionless”) citizens roam the streets homeless, fed by the Abnegation sect – but so be it. And ignore Amity and Candor – they seem boring anyway.
The central crisis in Divergent occurs when 16-year-old Abnegation-raised Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) must choose the faction that will represent her for the rest of her life: should she stay with her parents (played by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) in Abnegation? Join her brother, who chooses Erudite? Or follow those deep-down feelings in her heart and go for Dauntless?
A dreamlike “test”, induced by an injection from an administrator (Maggie Q) is supposed to guide Beatrice in making her decision. But the results are split equally between Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless: Beatrice is a rare “Divergent”, meaning she shares traits from different sects, and is therefore a danger to society. For some reason.
Fortunately, the test admin is appreciative of her condition: she sends Beatrice home and advises her to keep a low profile and stick with Abnegation. Of course, she chooses to follow her heart and become a protector of the city at Dauntless, making some new friends, enemies, and maybe even falling in love along the way.
Divergent soars as Beatrice – now Tris – makes her way up the ranks at Dauntless. Taking enough time to detail her journey and all the pain that goes along with it – Tris is not adept at combat, something that Woodley painfully relays – the first two-thirds of the film are something along the lines of The Hunger Games meets Ender’s Game, and right alongside those films in terms of quality. Even the expectedly cheesy romantic stuff – with Dauntless trainer Four (Theo James) – pays off.
A lot of the credit for that should go to director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless), working from a script by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor; Divergent is fully-fledged Young Adult fare, but it delivers a compelling little B-movie ride with a wink and a smile; as Beatrice’s double-bluff climactic “fear” test gets an uproarious laugh from the audience, you wonder if the filmmakers knew just how silly this material is.
Unfortunately, Divergent goes off the rails in its final third, as the film becomes less about Tris and more about a completely underdeveloped storyline involving Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and political nonsense. As Tris unconvincingly morphs into an action hero and bullets litter the screen, Divergent loses its teen girl-power appeal and becomes something else entirely.
All in the name of setting up a sequel. But with Divergent performing well at the box office, that sequel is likely to come.