With a concept like an overgrown personality test and a villain who specifically states that she is against “individual will,” “Divergent” could have easily become a clichéd mess that was impossible to watch without lots of eye rolling. Amazingly, it just manages to sidestep these pitfalls, and holds its ground as a pretty deeply felt and believable coming-of-age story.
The opening sequence helps the film’s credibility. It firmly grounds us in a future dystopian Chicago, and then takes us into its five-factioned society without flinching or winking at the audience. It’s true to the source material of Veronica Roth’s book, and takes it completely seriously, which is a good thing in this context. The film is out to tell you a story, and there’s no time for looking around at the world it takes place in, shrugging.
If you don’t know anything about this world, it centers around five factions — Abenegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite — each of which holds up one attribute above all else as an ideal and way of life. The test taken by our main character, Tris, near the beginning of the story literally is a personality test meant to tell you where you belong, but it “doesn’t work” on her because she is something called “divergent,” and therefore cannot be simplified and categorized in this way.
I think the viewer is meant to oscillate back and forth between identifying with Tris and wanting to take the test themselves. The
demographic for the book series is an age group that is just beginning to know who they are, and sometimes it’s nice to be told where you fit. We’ve probably all taken personality quizzes to try and explain what is happening in our brain in a hard and fast way instead of the complicated and fuzzy reality it is The movie argues multiple platitudes simultaneously — Be yourself. Know yourself. Improve yourself. Being complicated is okay. Knowing where you belong is great, but you have to make that place exist by your own power sometimes. We know who we really are through the eyes of others. We know who we really are because we make ourselves that way. Aspire to be honest and brave and smart and selfless and kind. Et cetera. It’s not exactly subtle — or totally consistent — but it is noble, and it seems to understand and take seriously the high-stakes emotional nature of the adolescent mind.
Shailene Woodley really is wonderful as the lead. The artistic vision is clear, and very slick, with visuals that give the plot and concepts of the film a stamp of realism to steer things away from cheesiness. The danger and suspense feel real. The totalitarian enemy feels deadly and contemptible. Even the romance is more subtle than I expected. The only times things feel heavy-handed are the moments when Janine, our villain, explains her “non-conforming is bad” ideology. For someone from the Erudite faction, she is surprisingly inarticulate about her vision for society, and her belief in the established system and statements about it are not at all convincing. The film seems to refuse to play devil’s advocate for her, which makes our dislike for the character flat and obvious.
If you like “The Hunger Games,” this should be right up your alley, as they basically have the same strengths and weaknesses. The degree to which Tris is “Katniss-ized” and made into a brooding hero actually becomes slightly annoying at points, but overall, “Divergent” is a strong, high stakes action film with just as much respect for internal battles as physical ones, and as a franchise it definitely manages to get its feet off the ground.