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Movie Review: Divergent Offers An Awkward Romance, Routine Action but Great Character Development

by Bob Garver

March 24, 2014. “Divergent” takes place in a future where everyone is divided into five factions. There are smart ones, peaceful ones, honest ones, tough ones and kind ones. You’re expected to choose a faction at the age of sixteen and stay with them for the rest of your life, living among them and having little to do with your actual family. Everyone takes a test to see which faction is best suited to them, though they are allowed to choose whichever one they want. 

A girl named Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) takes the test and doesn’t fit into any category. People like this are called Divergents and are considered such a threat to the faction system that they are to be killed. There’s some vague explanation about how they upset the necessary balance of society, but my guess is that the main reason they’re being hunted is so the leaders won’t have to admit that they did a lousy job of designing the test.

The film is based on a series of books aimed at teenagers and is drawing nearly automatic comparisons to “The Hunger Games” series. Despite a handful of similarities, I don’t consider it a knockoff. Yes, they both star a strong female protagonist, Yes, both stories feature teenagers put in mortal danger. Yes, they both take place in a strictly-regulated future society. And if you really want to stretch it, I can see where the faction system is similar to the District system, though you choose the former and are born into the latter. But I bet if the movie wasn’t based on a book series with sales comparable to “The Hunger Games” people wouldn’t get so hung up on the similarities. 

imgresActually, the film feels a lot closer to “Ender’s Game” than “The Hunger Games.” That’s because the film largely follows Tris (as she rebrands herself) as she schools and trains with Dauntless (the tough ones), her chosen faction. As such, we get stock characters like best friend (Zoe Kravitz, which I guess is another “Hunger Games” similarity in that they both feature a Kravitz), a bully (Miles Teller, badly miscast as someone who could take Shailene Woodley in a fight), a mean teacher (Jai Courtney, who I have yet to forgive for that awful “Die Hard”) and a gruff but helpful mentor Four (Theo James). This time the mentor doubles as a love interest, and we get some laughably over-the-top scenes of affection reminiscent of “Twilight.”

The villain is an Erudite (smart one) played by Kate Winslet in a role much jucier than Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. She wants to use the Dauntless to overthrow the government of Abnegations (kind ones), which includes Tris’s parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn). She brainwashes the Dauntless with a serum that works on everyone except Divergents. It’s up to Tris to fight back against the Erudites, and for once I can buy the single protagonist beating a swarm of villains because Tris has gone through a rigorous training regimen while the Erudite look like they can barely carry their books. But they still have guns. 

“Divergent’s” training and action scenes are pretty routine, and the romance storyline is awkwardly wedged in. It’s the characters who sell this franchise. The future society of the film isn’t as bleak as a lot of the others, and the characters are allowed to have loftier goals than mere survival (although it does come down to that eventually). Tris is refreshingly ambitious and Four’s flaws make him more interesting than your average movie hunk. Tris’s mother turns out to be a hidden treasure, as how many movies have a mother and daughter side-by-side shootout? Not enough, I say. The next film, “Insurgent” is likely to go easy on the training scenes, so I’m interested in seeing it and following up on these characters.

Two stars out of five.