By KIRBY MCCORD
Blame it all on J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. Or Stephanie Meyers and Bella Swan. In any event, it is time for another teen novel series to come to the big screen. This time it is Veronica Roth’s “Divergent,” and luckily for the audience, director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) knows how to make such a film work.
“Divergent” opens in post-apocalyptic Chicago, a community surrounded by a huge wall to protect it from some unnamed danger. The population is divided into factions, each representative of some perceived virtue, each charged with a duty to perform only one function in the closed society. Each faction is segregated from the others by dress and social interaction as well as occupation. When a child reaches the age of maturity, in a public ritual, he or she chooses which faction to join; the decision is irrevocable. Naturally, parents desire their children to remain within their own faction, for to join a different faction terminates any familial relationship. Prior to making this choice, each teenager is given a chemically induced hallucinogenic test to determine which faction he or she is best suited to join. Angst-filled Tris’ test results are unclear which faction would be best for her; she is labeled divergent. Much to her parents’ dismay (they are in the public service faction), Tris chooses the military faction. She instantly begins rigorous training, fights against discrimination, and uncovers a plot to take over the government.
“Divergent” is thematically unoriginal in the wake of other series in this genre (“Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games,” “Beautiful Creatures,” and “The Immortal Bones” all come to mind); the age-old teen concern about belonging is vital in such a movie, as is a budding romance, and the loyalty of friends. We’ve seen these themes played out over and over and over again. But in creatively developing these themes, “Divergent” surprisingly works. But why? Four elements are necessary for films in this genre to be successful.
First, such a movie must create a world that is familiar enough for teens (and other target audiences) to recognize, yet be different enough to be interesting. The most popular films in this genre have accomplished this: in “Harry Potter,” it is the magical world existing side-by-side with the “muggle” world; in “Twilight” it is shadowy vampires and werewolves hiding in plain sight; in “The Hunger Games,” it is a post-apocalyptic world at once reminiscent of ancient Rome, futuristic Star Trek-like technology, and Depression-era Appalachia. Less popular films fail to create such a world: “The Immortal Bones” defines a certain segment of the urban Goth culture as demons and demon hunters, and “Beautiful Creatures” identifies witches within the rural South—while intriguing, the worlds created in these films do not have broad-based appeal. “Divergent” seems to be in the middle here, with a future world that teens see enough of in our prejudicial world to comprehend as injustice.
Second, in addition to a realistically plausible world, the action in that world must also be believable — yet magical enough to stimulate visual interest.
“Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” obviously have sufficient action done well enough to be visually exciting. “Twilight” definitely falls short in this area. “Beautiful Creatures” and “The Immortal Bones” are surprisingly effective with this element. “Divergent,” again while unoriginal, has some decent but unspectacular scenes. Most notable are characters dauntlessly jumping from moving trains and off of rooftops into inky darkness.
Third, such a movie must have a lead character with whom teens can identify and the actor playing that role must enhance. The innately good but self-doubting character of Harry Potter has instant appeal. The sacrifice of Katness and her naiveté in the public world are just as instantly likable, especially as played by the magnetic Jennifer Lawrence. The beautiful ennui of Bella is irritating but identifiable for teens (and is offset by teenaged girls’ attraction to Edward and/or Jake — a reason almost all male teens do not care for “Twilight”). In “Divergent,” Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) is a very appealing Tris. Her nervousness and fear are palpable, and her determination to grow into a valorous defender is believable.
Fourth, a movie must have a doubly identifiable villain. For Harry, not only is it the malevolence of Voldemort, but the snide pettiness of Malfoy; for Katness, it is not only the megalomania of President Snow but the attention-seeking manipulation of Caesar. One of the flaws of “Twilight,” “Beautiful Creatures,” and “The Immortal Bones” is the lack of a true villain. But “Divergent” not only has Tris’ personal nemesis Eric (played cruelly by a sneering Jai Courtney, “I, Frankenstein”), but the always smiling but politically ambitious Jeanine (played with aplomb by the versatile Kate Winslet, “The Holiday”).
“Divergent” is solidly entertaining and is well worth the price of admission. Yes, its themes recur in almost all other teen-targeted films, but the key is how well those themes are handled.
1 star — Avoid this boring mess of a movie at all costs. Reading the dictionary is more entertaining.
2 stars — If you're in the right mood or if the subject matter appeals to you, you may like this film; or it is uneven, at times entertaining and believable and at other times sophomoric. If you've got nothing else to do, it may be worth the price of admission (at least a matinee).
3 star — This is a generally good movie that most people will enjoy. If you're looking for an entertaining couple of hours, spend it here and you won't be disappointed.
4 stars — Don't miss this film! I don't care if you have time or not, make the time, because this movie is terrific.