Soon after Mad Max was released, the 80s were filled with innumerable knock-off dystopian movies, where somehow the infrastructures of society failed in all regards except for the studded leather jacket industry. Who knew leather without cow farms could be possible?
Unlike those heady days, movies cost far too much to make now, so Hollywood has become more discerning. The latest wave of dystopias on the silver screen generally come by way of the bookstore, where titles prove their financial prowess before being optioned for a movie. This often means we are living in a bit of a golden age for high caliber, dystopian escapism.
Divergent by Veronica Roth delighted book readers, and now the films are delighting movie goers with the adventures of Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), a young Abnegation girl who finds herself in the middle of a political upheaval that threatens the lives of her entire faction. Set in Chicago some two hundred years after the Great War, in Beatrice’s world the Great Lakes are dried up, the greater Chicago area is fenced in, and society within the fence is stratified into factions of which Abnegation is only one.
There’s Erudite, known for their academic knowledge and smarts. There’s Amity, the farming hippies known for happiness and kindness. Candor is the faction that produces lawyers because of their love for brutal honesty and order (though I believe Roth was being extremely altruistic when she put lawyers and honesty in the same faction).
Dauntless are the soldiers and peace keepers—the fearless nut jobs who never saw a building ledge they didn’t like jumping off of. And lastly, there’s Abnegation, known for selfless dedication to others. They live plainly, and their selflessness makes them perfect candidates for government positions. Again, Roth is quite altruistic, but it works for the story.
The movie begins near the day of the test where Beatrice needs to make a decision. Each child takes a test which helps them determine which faction they belong to. Most stay in their family’s faction, but a few change factions. Beatrice’s problem is that her test showed she could belong to three different factions. She’s divergent, and this is a very bad thing.
Beatrice makes the move to Dauntless (now called “Tris”) and struggles to rise in the ranks throughout the first part of the movie. Her training is brutal and heartless, and the consequences for failure are death or becoming a factionless pariah. It’s a good thing she’s got hunky trainer, Four (Theo James), on her side, as well as a quick wit that helps her keep ahead of her enemies.
James and Woodley don’t have much chemistry, so the romance doesn’t warm up until later in the movie. In fact, the beginning is a bit slow as all the vital world building is filmed scene by scene. Once Tris decides to defy her leaders and continue training, however, her choice kicks the story into gear. She and Four have their inciting moment; the politics and intrigue become more menacing; and the story lights a rocket as it races the viewer along.
Divergent doesn’t hold up as well compared to the The Hunger Games, but there is still a lot of compelling drama to keep a viewer engaged. This was helped by strong performances from the seasoned actors in the cast, but mostly by Shialene Woodley, whose compelling acting held the movie together. There is a death scene later in the movie that is absolutely heart wrenching. Woodley’s pathos is so believable in that moment that I was not surprised at how many roles she has been landing lately.
Overall, Divergent has a solid story that sometimes feels thin for those who haven’t read the books, but is entertaining and filled with so much science fiction wonder that your curiosity will be piqued enough to catch the sequel.
Release Date: March 21, 2014 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Alcohol/Drugs: 2 (regular use of hallucinatory drug, minor social drinking)
Language: 2 (one f-word, multiple deity and other)
Sexuality: 2 (some kissing, locker room scene, intense sexual assault scene)
Violence: 4 (frequent fisticuffs, frequent brutal violent and bloody scenes, multiple deaths, disturbing scenes)