How in the world did Divergent wind up such a dud?
It’s based on a blockbuster series of teen-targeted novels—and that often means box-office gold nowadays. It has a strong cast, including Kate Winslet, and both Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller of The Spectacular Now. It also has a semi-reliable director in Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist).
Yet the film that made it to the screen would be a great over-the-counter solution for insomniacs. Forget Nyquil or those prescriptions for sleeping pills: Divergent will put your ass to sleep.
Woodley stars as Beatrice, a member of a post-apocalyptic society in which people are divided up into factions: Abnegation (The Selfless), Erudite (The Intelligent), Amity (The island where Jaws was set … wait, no, I’m sorry, The Peaceful), Candor (The Honest) and Dauntless (The Brave).
Beatrice is set to become an adult, and part of becoming an adult is being tested for your faction, and then choosing which faction to join. She comes up as a Divergent—in other words, she can’t be classified into a faction—but she tells everybody she’s an Abnegate, like her mom and dad (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn). She then chooses to join Dauntless instead, because she wants to run around and laugh and climb stuff. Of course, she will have some trouble when she’s found out for what she really is: Unclassifiable!
Winslet shows up as Jeanine, an Erudite with a mysterious whiff of evil. I imagine she’s the Darth Vader of this silly saga. Teller gets what feels like a tacked-on role as Peter, a member of Dauntless who gives Beatrice a hard time. It’s hard to watch these two very talented performers slumming in such stereotypical, unexciting parts.
Does the movie have sad, yearning, doe-eyed romance? You bet it does! Four (Theo James), a high-ranking member of Dauntless, sets his eyes upon Tris (that’s Beatrice; she changes her name to be cooler), and sparks fly. They can’t consummate things just yet, because this is a tween romance, and all tween romances need brooding. Still, they eventually find an excuse to show off their tattoos.
The whole enterprise is missing tension, humor, creativity, originality and focus. It’s a muddled affair that looks downright bad at times. On the plus side, one sequence—in which Tris rides a zip line between abandoned Chicago skyscrapers—actually had me interested. Unfortunately, that sequence is only a few minutes long.
The film lacks any real visual spark. It starts promisingly with a relatively cool flight over a decaying Chicago, but most of the movie involves drab tunnels, dull costuming and bad lighting.
This futuristic world, created by Veronica Roth in her novels, doesn’t feel distinctive. Still, maybe there’s some hope for the Divergent series. (Two more films are to come.) A new director is set to take over for Burger, although that director is the remarkably inconsistent Robert Schwentke, who directed Red, The Time Traveler’s Wife and the miserable R.I.P.D. Still, both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises got off to false starts before finding their footing. Heck, even Twilight almost got tolerable as it rolled along.
But for now, Divergent gets filed alongside the likes of last year’s The Host: It’s a wannabe tween franchise that lacks teeth, even though there is a good female star in the lead. I feel that Woodley can pull this one out of the fire and make it worthwhile in future installments. I also feel that I never want to see this flat first chapter again, unless I have a really bad cold and need something to knock me out.
Divergent is playing at theaters across the valley.