Despite the abundance of young adult science-fiction in the movies today, Divergent easily eclipses the overrated Hunger Games and Twilight films as Luke Ostler and Simon Evans find out…
Teenagers and young adults have been well catered-for of late with a succession of high-budget blockbuster franchises, and here’s the latest picture to fall into what could easily become a clichéd category: Divergent. Of the major players, this new contender is closer in tone to The Hunger Games than Twilight, featuring clear and present danger at every plot twist and turn.
The world we’re dropped into can’t seem to decide whether it’s a utopia or a dystopia (it’s always one of the two, isn’t it?) where every member of the population falls into one of five categories, or ‘factions’: Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave), the exception to this being the Factionless, an unfortunate bunch broadly comparable to today’s homeless. As each generation comes of age, conveniently at the same stage of life as the target audience, a life-defining test is undertaken that assists in placing each subject into one of the aforementioned factions. This coming-of-age ceremony takes place in an induced dream world that’s more than a little reminiscent of Inception and packed full of perilous scenarios. The actions each candidate uses to tackle these scenarios is what marks them as a natural fit for one of the factions; for example, the Dauntless, being brave, will find a weapon to overcome the scenario whereas a member of the Erudite faction, favouring intelligence, will devise a thoughtful, less violent solution.
If all this wasn’t enough to keep up with, heroine and free spirit Tris (Shailene Woodley) displays the characteristics of multiple factions and is therefore declared a ‘divergent’. This marks her out as possessed of superior mental abilities as well as being potentially difficult to control, a combination that seems to strike fear into those in power. Mercifully the examiner decides not to mention this startling result and Tris finds her place as a Dauntless, allowing the training stage to begin. While all of this is going on, the film is keen to show us simmering tensions between the leaders of the different factions, an element that takes on an increasingly prominent role in the narrative as the plot progresses. Unlike in the Hunger Games series, where the politics gets in the way of the pacing, Divergent’s machinations flow pleasingly through the main plot line and drive events along.
While the human conflict remains believable, elsewhere the film edges dangerously close to farce. Dauntless, having clearly taken some tips from 21st-century free runners, are introduced jumping in all directions from a moving train and then proceed to run and clamber across any and all surfaces imaginable, and it isn’t long before our rookie protagonist Tris is doing the same. The atmosphere in the training camp, meanwhile, is straight out of Full Metal Jacket, which at least gives Jai Courtney the chance to resume the bad guy role he filled so memorably in Jack Reacher. The training seems, at times, implausibly dangerous but helps Divergent’s success in creating a real sense of the mortality of the characters. With the exception of Tris, all certainty that supporting players will make it to the end credits is quickly swept away.
Director Neil Burger shows no willingness to subvert the rules of Hollywood: a plucky underdog rises through the ranks, defying the odds while developing a complex love/hate relationship with a troubled co-star, with a third-act plot diversion and an action-packed finale completing the action-adventure package. Divergent ticks all the above boxes, and in so doing proves that success isn’t necessarily limited by the lack of an innovative narrative framework. A review of this film centred purely on the new ideas it brings to the table would be scathing to say the least, but the richness of detail and strength of the central performances make it a very satisfying watch. As with so many recent pictures, the 140-minute running time is slightly excessive, but interest levels rarely flag, only struggling slightly in the last quarter as the plot sinks beneath the waters of an all-action finish. Like the similarly unambitious yet well-constructed The Host, Divergent easily eclipses the overrated Hunger Games and Twilight films. Let’s hope it gets the credit it deserves.