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New Release Review - Divergent

In a future society, a teenage girl's range of abilities makes her a threat to those in power.

Directed by: Neil Burger
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Ashley Judd, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer




At an undefined point in the future, America has become a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Chicago lives on behind a huge fence, the city's society divided into five factions based around human traits. Teenager Tris (Woodley) has grown up in the Abnegation faction, a group of people who devote their lives to helping others. The time comes in every teen's life when they must take a test to decide which faction they truly belong to, but Tris's test results prove her to be Divergent, meaning she possesses the qualities of more than one faction. Her tester (Maggie Q) covers up the result, warning Tris her life will be in danger if the powers that be learn she is a Divergent, and advises her to stay with Abnegation. At the choosing ceremony, however, Tris opts for Dauntless, a faction based around bravery whose members act as the police of the city. She soons begins to realize her society is not as utopian as she previously believed.
As a teen, I indulged in a lot of literary science fiction. It was a hobby I kept quiet as, back then, confessing to reading as much as a comic book was enough to have you branded a social outcast. Today's world is a different story; teens are now more likely to be shunned for engaging in sports than for owning the entire Harry Potter series in hardback. 20 years ago, finding a female teenager who enjoyed sci-fi was tantamount to discovering Bigfoot, whereas today it's quite normal to see a 16 year old schoolgirl reading a dystopian sci-fi tome on the bus home. Never known for shunning the opportunity to cash in on a trend, Hollywood has begun bringing the most popular of these female oriented sagas to the screen. Two movies in, The Hunger Games series has proven to be a colossal hit, with another two installments to come. Before the release of its opening chapter, a planned trilogy has been greenlit for Divergent, based on another young adult series from author Veronica Roth.
The central premise of Divergent bears a remarkable similarity to a work by one of those authors whose work I consumed as a sci-fi obsessed teen: Philip K Dick's Clans of the Alphane Moon. While Dick's novel featured societal factions based around people's negative traits (paranoia, depression, OCD etc), Divergent's factions focus on positive qualities (intelligence, selflessness, honesty etc). I can't speak for Roth's source book, but the film fails to sell this concept by repeatedly contradicting itself.
"This society works," Tris tells us in the exposition laden opening voiceover, but we're left with an awful lot of questions about how exactly this society functions. Citizens are split into five factions, with those who don't fall into any of these groups (the "factionless") left to wander homeless. Who then collects the rubbish in this town? There's no faction built around manual labor. Neither is there a faction for creative types, which might explain the awful pop music everyone seems to listen to here.
The moral behind the film seems to be that everyone is Divergent, that we can't be neatly categorized, but for the story's central concept to exist, that simply can't be the case. If everyone here is really is Divergent, why doesn't it show up in their tests? There are various other unexplained oddities, like why are there no children or old people in this world, why do Tris and her brother share the same choosing day when they aren't twins, and why is having the most intelligent faction run society such a bad idea?
Shailene Woodley is badly miscast in the lead role, possessing none of the gravitas necessary to carry a franchise, and the chemistry between herself and love interest Theo James is non existent, not to mention how their planned coupling would amount to statutory rape on his part by current standards. Director Burger shows no aptitude for set pieces or world building and his indie gem The Lucky Ones is looking increasingly like an anomaly. But it's the script that ultimately renders Divergent a disaster, written as it is like the first three episodes of a sci-fi TV show (and a Canadian sci-fi TV show at that) rather than a standalone movie.
When you're a teenager you always believe you're the smartest person in the room so it's easy to see why young girls might embrace the character of Tris, but Divergent, like most teens, isn't half as smart as it thinks it is.
4/10


Eric Hillis

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