Simply put, I was both impressed and disappointed by Divergent. As much as I wanted to love every frame, the gorgeous cinematography and excellent acting could not overcome a logic-bending central premise. Fans read on… If you dare. As always, I promise to give the film a fair shake.
The latest YA book series brought to the screen by Lionsgate (the studio also behind Hunger Games)– Divergent is set in a ruined Chicago landscape, walled off and decrepit 100 years after a civilization-destroying war (that’s unfortunately never clearly explained). The initial unflinching shots of the familiar, yet severely decayed, city were almost exactly what I was hoping for going into the theater. Sadly, these panoramic visions are little more than scant window dressing… Setting the stage for what should/could have been a very different, far more interesting movie.
After gorging on these startling establishing shots, I suddenly see hundreds of people brightly attired in colorful, high-quality clothing… All obviously well-fed, happy and peaceful. Whoa, what a dichotomy! The sudden appearance of these folks immediately causes my brain to rapidly fire off a series of questions like, “If the city has been safe for most of 100 years, why haven’t the people tried to reclaim and rebuild some of the ruined real estate?” I also wondered, “Who makes their clothes, so fresh and pressed?” and “Who keeps the elevated trains running (apparently non-stop)– even though they’re seemingly only used by a fraction of the city?”
Having such queries immediately pop into a viewer’s head can be energizing… And good if they are answered, but bad if they aren’t. In truth, the filmmakers never adequately address my mounting issues from the first moments of the movie– choosing instead to layer on more unexplained nonsense. It’s immediately clear The Powers That Be have complicated, high-level technology that allows them to view a person’s thoughts… Using such high-tech gadgets as hypospray syringes with the same ease we currently use wooden tongue depressors. All this future tech, yet no one even thinks to rebuild or use the dangerously decaying buildings all around them?
Yeah, I know. It doesn’t make much sense… And this nonsensical foundation almost mortally wounds the film.
Divergent is stuffed with contradictions… And severely tests the theatrical concept called “suspension of disbelief”– the term used to describe how an audience needs to look past the limitations of a medium in order to fully immerse itself in a story. Needless to say, I had to kick my suspension of disbelief into overdrive just to enjoy this film.
The biggest problem? The dizzying, confusing, dismaying way the factions of Abnegation, Amity, Erudite, Dauntless and Candor are constructed. I’m supposed to believe, 100 years after some supreme cataclysmic event, that humans have allowed themselves to be shuffled into one of five categories– none solely based on duty separation or personal affinity… And that these group affinities can be detected and regulated with drugs. The idea is so absurd, it’s beyond my capacity to overlook– and, most importantly, believe.
Honestly, have you ever met anyone exclusively selfless? Or exclusively happy or smart or fearless or honest? The beauty of humanity is defined by a mixture of such traits– and I simply can’t buy that humans have changed so much in such a small amount of time… Not without extensive genetic engineering and behavior modifications to mold such singular mindsets.
Then, after expecting me to swiftly digest all this front loaded backstory, I discover there is an entire segment of faction-less humans as well. These are the Divergents– people who either refuse to choose a faction or have suffered banishment from their respective groups. They live homeless and filthy on the streets. Yeah, right. Why wouldn’t they just squat in those enormous abandoned buildings? And if they’re so independent, why haven’t they organized into a huge status quo busting force of their own? (I know… More questions.)
Then it strikes me: This Society is missing one of the most basic human traits of all– curiosity. Why aren’t any of these teens or adults trying to get beyond the wall and find out what’s out there? If you’re like me, I doubt you’ll find a sufficient answer in this movie.
Despite all these narrative problems, there’s still a good film in here somewhere. As I mentioned, it’s gorgeous to look at. The fight and action scenes, despite the weird defensive position they all use in the fight ring that made me roll my eyes, are well-choreographed and well-paced. A few other logic issues are handled well too… Such as the way one main character, raised in Abnegation and moved to Dauntless, is shown to be physically weak– only barely scraping by during the initiation tests. The costumes, (believability of construction aside) are interesting and appropriate to character. The hallucination tests were also fascinating– often surreal and extremely exciting.
The actors were truly the film’s saving grace. Without their performances, there wouldn’t be much here. Tris (Shailene Woodley) has enormous, emotive eyes and I believed her journey from uncertain teen to smart, effective leader. Four (Theo James), despite his silly name, reminded me of a few of my exceptional martial arts instructors. The mutual attraction between Tris and Four is also handled at a slow and lovely pace– even though I had to pretend their Divergent status wasn’t part of what drew them together.
It’s great to see people of color in interesting, significant roles. Christina (Zoë Kravitz) is a strong, forthright comrade to Tris. Maggie Q is good as Tori, the tattoo artist who informs Tris she’s Divergent– and why this is dangerous. Of course, both Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet acquit themselves well. Winslet is especially fun to watch as a fanatic Erudite bent on taking control of the city. (Another plus– her “American” accent was flawless!) Too bad Mekhi Phifer was barely visible. They either demolished his part in post-production or underused him criminally from the outset.
Given the above, it’s no surprise Divergent left me interested and frustrated. If the creators had blasted through the awkward parts and delivered a well-designed film filled with believable concepts and action, I’d probably be weeping onto my keyboard as I type this review. Instead, they did little more than hook me well enough to want to know what happens in the next film. Even with that, I’m still left with a slightly sour taste… Shaking my head at this waste of talent, time and money.