On the surface, Neil Burger’s Divergent (much like its source novel) is little more than an attempt to capitalize on the success of The Hunger Games. It marks the beginning of what’s bound to be a whole lot of inevitable knockoffs — all involving sad teens living in dystopian sci-fi landscapes — coming to theaters in the next few years. But beyond the obvious comparisons to The Hunger Games — from the female lead, to the subject matter, set design and color palette — Divergent is little more than an ‘80s or early ‘90s Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi vehicle, right down to the jokey one-liners. There are shades of The Running Man (1987) and Total Recall (1990), but reimagining these kinds of films for teens isn’t quite as fun or interesting in practice as it is in theory. A lot of this lies in the execution. Burger and company fancies Divergent as important filmmaking, and therefore make attempts to tackle big, moral dilemmas. But its ideas become too muddled to be coherent. Like those aforementioned Schwarzenegger movies, there’s the sheen of intelligence, but it lacks any real enlightenment.
Unlike the dystopian America of The Hunger Games, Divergent posits a dystopian Chicago, one that is walled-in and crumbling after some unnamed war seemingly destroyed society. The survivors have been separated into five factions, each based on a person’s virtues and each filling a purpose within the social contract. This is where the film’s hero, Tris (Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now), comes in. She’s of the humble Abnegation faction, but she soon finds out she’s actually a rare and uncontrollable Divergent. This could mean death if she were found out, since the Divergents inherently threaten the delicate balance of her world. In order to survive, she attempts to join up with the daring Dauntless, a sort of manic, butch police force, who run around climbing things and getting neck tattoos. These guys are probably supposed to appeal to the more rebellious tweens in the audience. Most of the film follows Tris’ training with Dauntless, which mires the plot down in pointless sidebars. This makes Divergent’s absurd 139-minute running time all the more ridiculous.
Beyond cinematic influences, Divergent is simply a jumble of disparate science fiction tropes. Any questions the film raises have already been posited by science fiction authors in the past, with Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and Philip K. Dick’s Clans of the Alphane Moon coming immediately to mind. But those authors had answers — or, at the very least ideas — where Divergent is more worried about mundane drama of stressed out futuristic teens. This is where the film’s joylessness comes in. The tone of the film is entirely straight-faced and self-important. Not helping things is Woodley, who wanders through the entire movie with a puckered face, a vague sense of angst and zero personality. Even worse is her chemistry with the requisite brooding, muscle-bound hero of the picture, Theo James (Underworld: Awakening), who’s most defining moments include taking off his shirt and resembling an elongated James Franco. (In this respect, Divergent starts to look a lot like Twilight.) On screen together, they create an expressionless void, which, conveniently, perfectly describes Divergent. Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher.