Churning out movie after movie adhering to a popular trend is what Hollywood does best. Divergent is the latest attempt to turn a popular YA novel into a popular movie franchise, checking all the increasingly familiar boxes.
Dystopian stories are supposed to be about rebelling against conformity, appreciating one’s uniqueness, and improving the lives of other people. Divergent is one of these dystopian stories, and while all of these themes are present in the original novel, the method of transition to the big screen makes them somewhat conflicted. Let’s not dodge the truth here. A big-budget film’s purpose is to make money, and in order to do this, it must conform to certain trends and formulas in order to appeal to the right sort of crowd. The film might be about rebelling from oppression, but the film studios want you to conform to their agendas and consume their products. Of course, this conflict of interest won’t really make much difference to those whom this film matters most. For those avid fans, Divergent hits all its marks. For the rest of us though, it’s easy to see through the facade.
For one, the story is interesting but doesn’t quite wow us. It feels like a generic dystopian film, such that even if you haven’t read the book, it will seem familiar. Also familiar is the focus on the love interest, which injects some emotion into the otherwise monotonous tone. This teenage affection is nowhere as cringe-worthy as in the Twilight franchise, but that’s probably because the lead actors can actually act. However, while the acting is competent, the script and direction are a letdown. They don’t manage to push the film the extra mile it needed in order to become something besides an adaptation of yet another YA novel. While The Hunger Games has proven that these types of films can be somewhat engaging and inspiring despite their mass-produced intentions, Divergent doesn't give non-fans much reason to jump on the bandwagon. Thankfully for Hollywood, that’s not a necessity for this film to be a success. It manages to hit its target, even if it is a low one.
Entertainment Value: As is always the fact with book-to-movie adaptations, fans of the book will have fun seeing the characters and the story they love come to life. For everyone else, there is a fair amount of action and adventure to keep you awake. The film makes an attempt to present you with something that resembles thought-provoking, but unfortunately it never becomes engaging enough to merit much of a brain workout. Overall the film feels very plain. The film makers missed out on a lot of chances to take the story and characters to new, interesting places, but instead the focus is on the familiar things we have seen countless times in movies before. I think part of the problem is that straying too far from beaten path risks making the film unpalatable to the intended consumer. This is the case of a film being adapted for a specific audience, and it shows. Okay (3/5)
Story: The film is very close to being too long, but the extra screen time helps to make sure that the story is mostly preserved from the book. While everything seems very simplified and details are few and far between, never does it feel like anything is rushed. Although the extra time allows the story to develop naturally, it also means that it sure takes its time to get anywhere. Unlike Catching Fire, which clocks in at an equally lengthy 143 minutes, this film is largely devoid of traditional action. Instead, the story tries to focus on its characters and their relationships. The result is mixed success. The script is simply too monotonous and dull for the actors to overcome, and it leaves too many questions unanswered. Okay (2/5)
Acting: Shailene Woodley has enough popularity and talent among the teen crowd to become a formidable leading lady, but this film doesn’t really put those talents to best use. Her character, Trish, feels like she is being held back. The story rarely allows her to push the boundaries and when she does the result is never expanded on and largely feels forgotten. Theo James also shows some promise as Four, but so often is his role relegated to the stereotypical love interest that we forget he is an actual person. Jai Courtney makes a good impression, as does Ashley Judd, being two of the few characters who inject some emotion into the otherwise drab tone. Kate Winslet feels out of place as Jeanine Matthews, a figurehead in the future society. Although she is obviously an antagonist from the beginning, she actually manages to perform that type of role well. The supporting cast are full of one-sided characters played by actors such as Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, and Ray Stevenson. Okay (3/5)
Directing: While the story deserves much of the blame for making this film rather dull, the direction contributes as well. Neil Burger doesn't really understand what it takes to create a character-driven story. It’s almost as if he mistakes character-driven for character-focused, because that is where the film’s perspective seems to be perpetually locked. Too much of the film is spent up close zoomed in on the faces of the characters. Not only does it create a claustrophobic feeling, but Burger chooses to alternate the focus of the lens during these close encounters which is distracting and annoying. The film has an interesting setting, but the audience would hardly know because Burger all but neglects to spend any time showing us. One thing Burger does handle well are the film’s few action sequences. Those moments are clearly conveyed to the audience. Okay (2/5)
Production: The special effects of the film are interesting, but unfortunately don't have as much impact as they could have. Part of the problem is that, as discussed above, the director neglects to spend much time focusing on them. Another problem is that the color tone of the film is, like the story, rather dull and monotonous. There are a lot of grays and browns, and not much really catches your eye like it should. The cinematography fails to adequately produce the visual texture needed to make the film feel alive, probably because so much of it is out-of-focus. Overall, Divergent doesn't put enough effort in the details to make it more than moderately interesting. The script is more focused on getting teens into theaters than pushing the envelope, and the same can be said about the technical aspects. It has enough of what its target audience is looking for to keep them wanting more, but the fact that it somewhat undermines the genre that it is trying to be a part of means that everyone else will have had enough. Okay (2.5/5)
What’s Bad: Doesn't stray at all from the profit-making formula, annoying direction, dumb script doesn't do the actors and favors, conflicted message, hardly does anything to set itself apart from other similar films.
This movie was just barely enjoyable, I hope the new director for the second and third movies can clean up this mess and focus on the important aspects of the books, and not solely on the romance.