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Friday, March 21, 2014

Movie Review: Divergent

Veronica Roth's worldwide bestseller gets a big screen adaptation from Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist) that finds an excellent lead performance from a young star but collapses under the weight of shoddy source material. 

There's a degree to which the setting doesn't matter.  Sure, the setting of Divergent makes no sense whatsoever if you think about it for more than, say, two seconds, but neither, really, did the setting of Harry Potter.  Of course, Harry Potter was purposely fantastical, one foot solidly out of the real world, while Divergent is dystopian drama, lacking that same freedom, but I shall try to keep my criticism of the mind-numbingly dumb setting - in which all of society is forced to abandon family connections in favor of 'factions' based on single personality traits like 'selflessness' or 'intelligence', a system the film explains roughly 80 times, seeming vaguely more embarrassed to do so every time - to a relative minimum.  Indeed, the film smartly ignores some of the (very few) actual details Roth gave of her dystopian Chicago, a decision that works to downplay the essential ridiculousness of the basic premise when it can.

But if the setting doesn't matter, what does?  The overall world-building of Divergent is similarly flimsy, introducing broad concepts that make little sense and then gliding quickly on to the next thing in hope that you don't notice.  The characters, even fairly major ones, are mostly drawn in broad strokes - and not even the right strokes, given the ridiculous premise that everyone is supposedly defined by a single character trait (ugh).  The pacing and plotting seeks to ape Harry Potter and The Hunger Games but lacks the rigorous forward momentum and character-driven drama that defined those two successful franchises.  But if it gets all that wrong, what, exactly, does it get right?

Author Veronica Roth has a way of tapping into simple, lizard-brain pleasures - the bad guys are capital-h Hatable and the romance is 'take-your-breath-away-love-at-first-sight' Romance.  Those fundamental pleasures may not allow for much subtlety, but that doesn't make them less powerful.  The film loses a lot of that basic hook, unfortunately. The book's three major villains - Peter on a personal level, Eric on an organizational one, and Jeanine as the city-wide baddie - mostly just show up to sneer out a one-liner or two before vanishing into the ether until the next time the film wants you to get angry.  The romance, already shallow in the books, seems even more like it falls prey to The Amazing Spider-Man syndrome, coming off mostly as 'two really pretty people realizing how pretty they are'.  Worst of all, I think, the violence of Dauntless is severely downplayed from the book - an early, accidental death is completely excised, and Triss' extreme bullying, realization of her own moral code, and eventual hardening to make the two meet is largely skipped in favor of her romance with Four.

Shailene Woodley is the reason the film works as well as it does.  Woodley, who earned (and deserved) rave reviews last year for her touching teen romantic drama The Spectacular Now is an immensely talented  young actress - and, it turns out, a capable action star in her own right.  A badass late-film "Why do people keep saying that to me?" is, in Woodley's hands, simultaneously funny, an example of her character's arc, and one of the year's biggest cinematic cheer-lines thus far this year. While Tris is blessedly less of a cipher than Twilight's Bella, an infamous example of a noncharacter, she has a long way to go to join the modern YA pantheon with Katniss, Harry, Ron, and Hermoine.  Woodley works her ass off selling a character I'm not 100% certain exists yet, and manages to find a few moments of genuine emotion here and there.  And this is no Mortal Instruments: City of Bone; there is genuine emotion to be found here, even if it gets buried a little under all the fluff. Well, genuine emotion for Tris and maybe, on some smaller level, for Four; as I said above, there are essentially no other characters and no acknowledgment whatsoever that these are ostensibly 'hu-mans' with 'hu-man feelings'.

Neil Burger manages to bring some of the effortless charm that made 2011's Limitless such a surprise success to the film, but not enough.  Perhaps Divergent's biggest issue (besides the setting - sorry) is that it is plagued by pacing issues, though many of those are inherited from the novel and would be almost impossible to avoid without retooling a lot of the story's basic structure.  Essentially, the first twenty minutes are all exposition and set-up, the last twenty minutes are all climax... and the one hundred minutes in between is a combination of training montage and shallow teen romance.  Devices introduced by Roth to heighten drama in the book are largely sidelined or downplayed in the film, which is unfortunate; that middle section could use a significant kick.  Thankfully, the finale successfully steps up and recaptures a little bit of the dramatic urgency

But the movie does, admittedly, look great.  The costume design is simple, solid, underplayed - it makes the shallower characters easy to tell apart (everyone is color-coded), and it looks good too.  The real star is Chicago, however.  Half-demolished by a war we know nothing about, the city looks real in a way the Dauntless pit never does, and the fence that surrounds it has a brilliantly odd design.  And I'm told by Chicago residents that the film features some top-notch skyline porn, particularly in a surprisingly joyous sequence that finds Triss ziplining across the whole city, through the ruins of famous buildings.

Look, for all the crap I'm talking, Divergent isn't a truly bad movie.  There are moments where it genuinely works, thanks almost entirely to the talents of Shailene Woodley and a simple, coherent visual sense that eschews grandeur for downplayed classic sci-fi.  But it is limited by its loyalty to source material that, at my kindest, I would describe as pleasantly nonsensical.  The movie is stronger than many of the YA adaptations that have recently hit theaters - it is leagues ahead of The Host, Percy Jackson, and Mortal Instruments, to name a handful - but that speaks less to its strengths than to the general weakness of the fledgling genre.  Fans of the book will almost certainly enjoy Divergent, but I'm not sure if the uninitiated will find much to hold on to.

Rating: C

While Divergent is a slightly stronger film than Roth's novel, it is hobbled by loyalty to its source material and some very shallow world-building. But a reasonably strong cast led by a gifted star makes the movie watchable, and, at times, even enjoyable.
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